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The Judge Rules: Politicians hate lawyers – and always have

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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.

Previously:

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]

13 Comments

Anonymous

er- have u entirely missed the survey which suggested that public opinion supporting legal aid was c. 8 %age points higher than NHS

as your entire premise is misguided, i didnt read the rest. sorry.

(1)(6)

Incognito

Your comment is misguided. The article is correct. Here are the only two news reports I could find about your survey:

http://www.solicitorsjournal.com/news/22439/legal-aid-right-not-benefit-says-british-public and http://www.theguardian.com/law/2015/apr/13/justice-concern-free-healthcare-yougov-poll-legal-aid-cuts

“…84 per cent of people believe legal aid and a right to a fair trial were fundamentally a British right. By comparison, 82 per cent of those polled felt that free healthcare at the point of use was a fundamental right. In addition, 79 per cent thought a state pension was a must…”

Some questions – I’d be fascinated to hear your answers:

1. The only newspaper which regarded this as newsworthy was The Guardian. The press pander to their audience’s interests. What does this tell you about the public’s interest in legal aid?

2. Do you recognise the distinction between a) supporting something, and b) actually regarding it as important – i.e. if asked leading questions by a specially-commissioned survey, people might support a robust response to Russian aggression in Ukraine, but it’s far, far down their list of most important priorities: do you think this might also be the case for legal aid?

3. What do you think this IPSOS/Mori poll tells us about how important legal aid is to the public: https://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/3455/EconomistIpsos-MORI-September-2014-Issues-Index.aspx … “…immigration is still seen as the most important issue facing Britain today, mentioned by two fifths (39%).* This is followed by the economy, mentioned by three in ten (30%), [then the NHS, mentioned by 25%]”?

4. The only mention of legal issues on mainstream poll trackers (see link above) is under the title, “Crime/Law and order/Anti-social behaviour”. I suspect that legal aid is regarded by most of the population as a) either irrelevant to those issues, or even b) a an aggravating factor – i.e. ‘throwing money at the oxygen thieves who cause crime and ASB’. Do you agree? If not, what evidence do you have that it is a concern to normal people?

Most of the public will *not* need criminal legal advice during their lifetime. The small number of people who do – recidivist offenders who persist in committing offences – are, whether we like it or not, loathed by most of the law-abiding public, who resent what they perceive as ‘squandering taxpayers’ money on scum’. We may disagree very strongly with that view, but we would – I respectfully submit – be delusional to fail to at least recognise it. What proportion of the criminal legal aid budget does go on repeat offenders? A 26 year-old woman was in court a few months ago on her 100th appearance, and 150th offence. She was represented on legal aid, and I suspect she is representative of the majority of legal aid recipients. Whether we like it or not, many/most taxpayers aren’t happy with their money going to such people.

Taxpayers might be more willing to fund:

1. A ‘bargain basement’ level of legal aid – i.e. paralegals on £20k salaries, providing very low quality, very cost advice. This seems to be the desired end state of the Grayling cuts. Effectively, doing to criminal defence what was done to conveyancing years ago, or motor claims in more recent times.

2. Or, if we do want proper quality advice for the ‘unlucky middle class person of good character’ who we all use as the example of why people should care about legal aid being available, perhaps ration that ’top tier’ assistance: Legal aid for a ‘proper lawyer’ (i.e. experienced, high-quality HCA/barrister on a £50-60k+ salary) the *first three times someone is prosecuted* only, thereafter their entitlement ceases/drops to the bare minimum required for Article 6-compliance (i.e. a barely-qualified paralegal on £20k, as above).

There just doesn’t seem to be the appetite in public to fund the quality of representation that the criminal legal aid fraternity believes there should be. Unlike Grayling, I’m not suggesting that this is due to self-interest by criminal practitioners, rather I think that it’s because most ‘law-abiding taxpayers’, to use a Tory phrase, rightly or wrongly, don’t care about the quality of support that repeat offenders get. If I’m right (and perhaps I’m not – please do comment below) and we fail to recognise that by adopting an ostrich-like position, we are deluding ourselves to no purpose.

(6)(1)

Simon Myerson

Entirely right I’m afraid. The public loves legal aid, but it doesn’t vote because of it.

Unfortunately for us, the Lib Dems are about as solid as a chocolate teapot, so no point listening. And the Greens are such loons that even their pledge isn’t enough to make me vote for them.

What would work is the Myerson Act – otherwise known as the Community Services Act 201?, which has only one clause:
S1. Any person in receipt of public funds as a result of their election into any office whatever, or who holds an appointment involving the receipt, distribution or use of public funds, must use publicly funded services where these are available, for their own needs and those of their family.

(5)(3)

Incognito

“…the Community Services Act 201x… S1. Any person in receipt of public funds as a result of their election into any office whatever, or who holds an appointment involving the receipt, distribution or use of public funds, must use publicly funded services where these are available, for their own needs and those of their family.”

That’s a genuinely brilliant idea, Simon! If only… I wonder if anything so revolutionary has ever been proposed?

(2)(1)

Simon Myerson

Don’t be incognito – let me shower you with love!

I don’t know, but in my view it should actually be one of the principles of public life. It is a natural development of the idea that those who lead ought to share in what they provide.

(2)(4)

Anonymous

“shower you with love” – as an actress said to a bishop…

(1)(0)

Not Amused

I would endorse this. We know the greatest military leaders all kept themselves sane by staying amongst the men.

(2)(1)

David Brent

Again, as an actress said to a bishop…

(3)(0)

Anonymous

The public don’t give a stuff about legal aid, until they find themselves in a position where they thought they would be able to rely on it, only to find that they are now unable to.

e.g. when they get divorced, want increased child access/custody, get fired from their job unfairly etc.

(5)(1)

Don Amos (King of Caravans)

Lest we forget, it was Labour’s Justice Minister, Jack Straw, a former criminal law barrister, who instigated the original blueprint for the wrecking of the legal aid system as we know it.
He and his advisers were the ones that first set out the need to ‘consolidate’ the provision of legal aid among fewer firms and mooted the first experiments in a more ‘competitive’ system in order to drive expenditure down.
We all now seem to blame the Tories and Grayling (The Anti-Lawyer), but it was one of our own that set this toxic slide down the hill of cost savings over justice in motion.

(5)(3)

Simon Myerson

I agree – just as it was Blunkett who first broke the taboo on criticising the decisions of the Court when the government lost. Both of them deserve a place in the hall of shame.

(1)(5)

Not Amused

In many ways the judiciary have either – brought this upon themselves or exacerbated the situation.

Once they stepped in to politics they joined the fray. They’ve done this increasingly with both HR and JR. As well as coded little press releases and speeches (see David Neuberger et al ad nauseam).

Their strength, our strength, has always lain in our independence. It’s not just the passive acceptance of .gov e-mail addresses and civil service appointment systems (indeed civil service ‘minders’); but each of these things takes its toll.

What we need is a strong judiciary, totally devoid of politics. What we have is a bunch of smug millionaires, playing at politics and, unsurprisingly, losing.

(3)(2)

Anonymous

Look at the common factor – the civil servants who worked on these policies whether put in place by Labour, Tory or Lib Dem.

There is a hostile MoJ who define themselves by their belligerence towards the legal profession.

Tales of Sir Humphry aren’t far off. Rather than blame the politicians, which get’s us nowhere as we’ve seen, let’s get to the root of the problem. Some career civil servants at the MoJ clearly have a grand plan for the legal aid section of the legal profession, but have yet to be open with the public about what that is.

(6)(0)

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