The Judge Rules: Politicians hate lawyers – and always have

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By Judge John Hack on

A round-up of the party election manifestos demonstrates yet again that while the legal profession might have right on its side, the political establishment of all colours doesn’t give a monkey’s

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It seems as though the general election campaign has been running for an eternity, so The Judge will try to keep this short.

Indeed, in the old days — five years ago — we’d already be approaching the final week before polling day. As it is, punters and word-weary pundits have nearly three more weeks of this circus before all eyes turn to the swingometer.

In any event, the manifestos are all published. And while most punters won’t be troubled by even the abridged, bite-sized versions, obsessive lawyers have been tweeting their analysis of which of the parties — if any — are legal profession-friendly.

So — do any of the main parties care about lawyers, apart from fielding a fair few as parliamentary candidates? Not really. That’s because of one racing certainty in every general election of the last generation: there ain’t no votes in legal aid.

Hard pressed legal aid lawyers would love to think that if the argument could just be made clearly, the public would see the light and realise that access to justice is equally important in a civilised society as access to health care.

But politicians of all hues know better. They realise that while just about everyone at some stage in their lives becomes poorly enough to require a GP or hospital visit, most people don’t require significant legal advice (and no, residential conveyancing specialists, buying a semi-detached in suburbia doesn’t count).

More importantly, the reason there is a much loved National Health Service and a now nearly dead publicly funded legal service is that doctors and nurses are seen as angles of life, whereas lawyers are seen as pompous, fat-cat purveyors of mumbo-jumbo.

If nothing else, the fat cat perception — as far as the state-funded sector is concerned — is ironically wrong. Thanks to the last Labour government, GPs and hospital consultants coin it from the public purse, far outstripping the earnings of average high street legal aid solicitors and their barrister colleagues.

However, politicians realised ages ago that rewarding the medical profession — the sort of people that patch up little Tommy when he tumbles off his bike, or miraculously save your spouse from the ravages of cancer — is far more popular than chucking money at those characters defending murderers, rapists and benefit-scrounging asylum-seekers.

And while legal aid lawyers relish pillaring the current Lord Chancellor as a failed television executive, Chris Grayling is acutely aware of that public attitude. He may face the odd frosty reception at legal profession soirees, but the chances of the Justice Secretary taking regular ear-bashings about his legal aid reforms from many on his constituency doorsteps is low at best.

That’s why the main legal affairs reference in the 2015 Tory party manifesto involved the pressing of that crowd-pleasing button about binning the Human Rights Act. Following that was a brief confirmation that it would be full steam ahead with the legal aid reforms.

Any legal aid lawyer banking on Labour to jump onto a white charger to ride to the rescue is delusional.

The party’s manifesto commits Labour to keeping the HRA and widening Freedom of Information Act access (despite form Prime Minister Tony Blair famously regretting having brought the legislation in). But Ed Miliband’s party is vague at best on whether it would even partially reverse the coalition’s bonfire of legal aid fee rates and eligibility. Which makes sense, as deep down in their memories, senior Labour figures recall that their party kicked off the reform process in the first place.

To be fair, the Liberal-Democrats devote the most manifesto ink to legal aid issues. “Access to justice is an essential part of a free society and a functioning legal system,” says Nick Clegg’s party nobly, before acknowledging:

“In this parliament we have had to make significant savings from the legal aid budget, but in the next parliament our priority for delivering efficiency in the Ministry of Justice should be prison and court reform, using technology and innovation to reduce costs.”

What’s more, say the Cleggers, in government the party would “review the criminal legal aid market and ensure there are no further savings without an impact assessment as to the viability of a competitive and diverse market of legal aid providers”.

But the only way the Lib-Dems will return to government will be as an even weaker prop to an either Tory of Labour master, neither of which looks that minded to playing nicely with the legal aid fraternity.

Indeed, in a pure fantasy world, every man and woman Jack and Jacqueline legal aid lawyer should slap on a Green rosette. The manifesto of Natalie Bennett’s party has a short but sweet statement on the subject:

“Make equality before the law a fundamental constitutional right. But this is only a reality if all can afford to use the law. We would restore the cuts to legal aid.”

But it will be tobogganing week in hell before the Greens form any part of a coalition. The best they’ll be hoping for is being able to have the odd word with a minority Labour government, and they are likely to see other words as being more important than legal aid.

All of which boils down to this a crucial life lesson: if you want to be courted by politicians and loved by the public, go to medical school.


Ukip manifesto pledges to protect ‘British law’ (even though ‘British law’ isn’t a thing) [Legal Cheek]

Legal profession doesn’t rate Tory manifesto pledge to scrap Human Rights Act [Legal Cheek]

Labour politicians don’t want to talk about their vague legal aid manifesto pledge on Twitter [Legal Cheek]