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25 March 2014

Liberties without justice

6 mins

The assault on justice began when Tony Blair promised to improve the image of the justice system and re-balance it in favour of the ‘decent law-abiding majority’.

  • New Labour meddled with the process of justice – by ending the ban on double jeopardy, introducing tougher sentences and cutting back on jury trials.
  • New Labour messed with the meaning of justice by blurring the distinction between criminal offences and ‘civil wrongs’. They gave us ASBOs, Dispersal Orders, Control Orders, Terrorism Asset Freezing Orders, and huge expansion in the use of Fixed Penalty Notices. New Labour were the architects of pre-crime justice.
  • New Labour buried justice under a welter of ill-conceived reactionary legislation that was relied upon to give the illusion of action. This law making frenzy included the invention of 3600 new criminal offences.

If New Labour’s assault on justice resulted from a lack of ideology; and I believe it did; then this government’s assault on justice is because of its ideology.

The coalition has repeatedly demonstrated that it does not believe that we should ‘all’ have access to court or legal advice, or that we should be treated equally before a court, or have our cases heard in public.

  • This government has removed public funding for the majority of non-criminal legal problems. Entire areas of law have been excluded from public funding including the majority of family, immigration, employment, debt, prison and education cases. Citizens have lost legal assistance in 600,000 cases a year. Their legal problems do not disappear they are merely dumped on other bodies.
  • In the areas of law that funding is still available, the government has introduced even more stringent eligibility tests. When legal aid was introduced 60 years ago, 80% of population was eligible, now less than 25% are eligible.
  • The government has expanded the use of secret courts into civil proceedings and thereby eroded the fundamental principle of open justice. Government can now present its arguments to the court in a closed session, with the citizen, his lawyer and the public excluded.
  • The government has cut legal aid rates. By doing so it is driving down professional standards and the quality of lawyers available to legal aid clients.
  • The government is imposing a residency test. This test will deny justice to some of the most vulnerable in society including those who allege the government is implicated in rendition and torture.
  • The government is cutting back judicial review – the principal way for citizens to challenge the excesses and abuses of public authorities and government.

It’s worth noting that the government is not scaling down its own use of lawyers. Corporations, high net worth individuals and the government continue to turn to lawyers as soon as they are in trouble and want to defend their positions. The justice cuts result in the most vulnerable being deprived of legal advice and the protection of the courts while the government insulates itself from challenge. A couple of years ago Lady Hale quipped that “in England justice is open to all… just like the Ritz” – this remark is even more painfully true today.

But why is justice facing such a ferocious attack now?

The answer is simple. If you cut justice, then you have succeeded in cutting liberties, and this government is no friend of liberty – and it is particularly hostile to the Human Rights Act. Theresa May told the Conservative conference last year that their next manifesto will pledge to scrap the Human Rights Act.

The government knows however that parliament and the public can be awkward about having liberties taken away. So the work-around, is to cut justice. Recently I heard it said that ‘liberties without justice were like music without instruments’. And so it is – cut justice and liberties become unenforceable.

The continuing noise and bluster about scrapping the Human Rights Act is serious but possibly just a distraction technique and this government is a master of the sleight of hand. Do you remember how not so long ago we fretted over our privacy and the Communications Data Bill, dubbed the ‘snoopers charter’. It was only after the bill was finally defeated that we realised that the government didn’t need it anyway because they had been spying on us all along via GCHQ and NSA.

And so while we rally to defend human rights in the UK, the justice system is being quietly dismantled behind our backs. We are left holding the title deeds to a property that has been bulldozed.

What is the position now for the majority of people in the UK if the police raid your home on a whim, without bothering to apply to court to get a warrant and subject you and your family to the ordeal of having your home turned upside down? Or what if you’re pulled off the street for no statutory reason or lawful excuse and detained in a police cell overnight before being released.

These are fundamental breaches of your human rights, but if you are one of Westminster’s favoured and ubiquitous ‘hard working families’ you won’t be able get legal help to deal with these breaches. You won’t qualify for legal aid, the government has made ‘no win, no fee’ unusable for human rights cases, and you wont be able to afford the calibre of legal help you need to take on the police lawyers. The majority of us now have unenforceable rights.

Next year the UK will host a Global Law Summit to coincide with the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. It is intended to showcase the UK as an international legal centre and celebrate the rule of law and our proud legal history.

But our proud legal history is coming to an end.

If the public do not unite to defeat these justice cuts then we will lose justice, the government will lose the £3.5 billion it makes from selling our legal services to overseas clients and the Global Law Summit next year will be little more than a ‘justice’ branded junket, offering Runnymede mugs and Magna Carta mouse mats to the in-house lawyers of multi national corporations.

Notes from the debate organised by the People’s Parliament, chaired by Labour MP:

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