More than 100 judges, peers, lawyers and doctors write open letter to the Guardian calling on new government to prevent ‘widespread miscarriages of justice’
More than 100 judges, peers, prominent lawyers and doctors working in the civil and criminal justice system have called on the incoming government to restore legal aid to prevent “widespread miscarriages of justice”.
In an open letter to the Guardian, the signatories – who include former appeal court judges, a chief inspector of prisons and a reviewer of terrorism legislation – condemn cuts made by the coalition government for depriving “hundreds of thousands of people” access to justice.
The plea of the 138 professionals, who represent a broad alliance of those working within the courts, reflects a collective anxiety that the issue of legal aid has not been raised adequately during the election campaign.
The Ministry of Justice is one of the departments expected to suffer further cuts whichever party or coalition comes to power after 7 May, with its spending unlikely to be ringfenced.
Annual expenditure on civil and criminal justice, which stood at £2bn a year in 2010 – equivalent to “the cost of running the NHS for a fortnight” – has now dropped to £1.5bn, the letter says. The number of debt cases supported by legal aid fell from 81,792 to 2,423 over a one-year period.
“Funding in family law cases dropped by 60% causing a predicted rise in unrepresented defendants,” it states, “a trend now also starting to be seen in the criminal courts.
“With cuts and debilitating restructuring comes the spectre of advice deserts, widespread miscarriages of justice, hundreds of thousands denied redress and the draining of the talent pool of future lawyers and judges as young people increasingly choose a career away from civil and criminal law.”
Lords Ramsbotham, the army general who became HM chief inspector of prisons, Lord Carlile QC, the former Liberal Democrat MP and one-time independent reviewer of terrorist legislation, and Baroness Ruth Lister, professor of social policy at Loughborough University, are among the signatories. Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, and Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, have also signed.
Among prominent laywers are Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, Sir Geoffrey Bindman QC, Michael Mansfield QC, Dinah Rose QC, Alistair MacDonald QC, chair of the Bar Council, and Tony Cross QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association.
The letter was organised by solicitors Rhona Friedman of the Justice Alliance and Zoe Gascoyne of the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association. Ian Lawrence, general secretary of the probation union Napo, as well as a large number of psychiatrists and clinical psychologists who work in the courts have also added their names.
The letter concludes: “We call upon the next government to abandon the highly controversial restructuring of criminal defence, restore legal help to the many currently without redress and to establish a royal commission to investigate the current crisis regarding the diminution of access to justice.”
One reason law and order has failed to feature in the election campaign may be that the falling crime rate has led to a popular perception that there is no problem in the courts.
On Tuesday, two days before the election, criminal solicitors firms must submit tenders for a new round of duty contracts for covering police stations and magistrates courts. Criminal solicitor fees are due to fall by a second tranche of 8.75%.
Robin Murray, of the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association,who has also signed the letter, said: “YouGov polling shows that 89% of the public believe access to justice, underpinned by legal aid, is a fundamental right. The legal experts and opinion formers who have added their signatures to the letter recognise this and know that if the current reforms are kept in place equality before the law will become a distant memory.”
Jonathan Black, chair of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association and another signatory, said: “After five years of the Lord Chancellor’s slash and burn approach to justice spending, we are looking forward to a fresh start with a new government following the election. The range of signatories shows that it is not just lawyers who are concerned about the impact of legal aid cuts on access to justice.”
In the past, the Ministry of Justice has defended the need to cut legal aid on the grounds that savings had to be made by the coalition. Last month a spokesperson said: “We have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world and even after reform it will remain very generous – costing around £1.5bn a year. Anyone suspected of a crime will still have access to a legal aid lawyer of their choosing after reform, just as they do now.”