The leading human rights lawyer Michael Mansfield QC reflects on how access to justice has been denigrated and downgraded’ and dropped off the political agenda
I write this as polling stations in the UK open. Like many concerned lawyers I have taken particular interest in whether any of the parties have even made legal welfare a manifesto commitment – let alone a priority.
It certainly has not featured in any of the main debates. The fact that it is not recognised nor treasured in the same way as the NHS, is because it is not regarded as a vote-catcher. The legal profession and justice system itself has not helped where aspects reminiscent of Bleak House still prevail. The culture of public service has only been truly embraced by solicitors and barristers committed to legal aid and the promotion of social welfare.
This is my 50th year of practice and it is shameful that we should be facing such a serious crisis in what was intended to be a vital fourth pillar of the welfare state – a societal vision of fairness, equal rights, equal access, and equality of arms.
This has been steadily denigrated and downgraded by successive recent governments including Labour. Draconian cuts in some areas amounting to 40% have decimated services to the many and especially the vulnerable and even the destitute. There is a substantial increase of unrepresented litigants. Many courts have been closed, those that remain have inadequate facilities. Court and tribunal fees are punitive.
At the same time, human rights law, and those who practise it, have become the targets. It started with Tony Blair and has been continued until the present moment when the Human Rights Act is being held by Theresa May and her cohorts in some way responsible for the spate of terrorist attacks in the UK.
During the last election only the Greens made a commitment to restore legal aid. This time there is no such commitment, which puts them in company with UKIP
The Tories are no better, if anything worse, by highlighting yet more regulation homing in on unscrupulous law firms. Their only concession to justice emanates from Hillsborough and support for the appointment of a public advocate (a proposal I have backed which was constructed originally by two prominent Labour politicians).
The Lib Dems and Labour, however, do both talk of a LASPO review. Labour await the conclusions of the Bach report before setting out a basis for its restoration with an explicit reference to resourcing preparation for judicial review.
This comes close to identifying the core force and agenda which lies behind the current predicament. The historic justification for cuts has been economic. But this is a facade, given the financial resources that are always seemingly available for aggressive foreign adventures. It is no coincidence that the legal aid cuts have run alongside cuts to substantive social welfare generally. It is done to disempower and subdue. The consolidation of vested interest continues apace with financial institutions still measuring their future by sizeable bonuses equivalent to the legal aid budget.
Normally belief in the implementation of manifesto promises is sanguine. But Jeremy Corbyn has displayed a far stronger track record on principle so maybe there is a slender slither of hope.
In any event, and meanwhile, a grass roots campaign of the kind so effectively mounted by the new reinvigorated Greater Manchester Law Centre is urgently required. Huge community base of overwhelming support, combined with actively challenging all political candidates about social justice, is the agenda we should all endorse.
This article first ran on the Justice Gap here