Willy Bach on the Cabinet’s mixed messages over a defendant’s right to choose a lawyer
Within a few days of part 1 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act coming into force, the Coalition government came forward with new proposals to decimate legal aid. The timing was of course deliberate.
LASPO effectively destroyed social welfare law, taking it out of the scope of legal aid in the vast majority of cases. This cruel attack means that many poor and marginalised people can now no longer get the advice they need – they are in a real sense deprived of access to justice. And the loss of vital income to not-for-profit advice centres is already proving fatal. Birmingham Law Centre announced its closure earlier this week.
The new proposals continue the attack on civil legal aid, by fundamentally undermining the system of judicial review so that it will be much more difficult for an individual to take action against the unlawful acts of government (national or local) and other public bodies.
This time around however, the Ministry of Justice has come down absurdly heavily on criminal legal aid. Instead of looking seriously at the failings of the criminal justice system itself, the Coalition is proposing reducing the earnings of all criminal law practitioners by a crude and excessive 17.5%.
Dafter still is the proposal to forbid defendants in criminal trials from having a choice of lawyer. From now on, the State will decide.
It has long been a principle of the UK legislative system that a defendant is deemed to be innocent until found guilty on cogent evidence by a court of law. A related principle is that the State shall not impose a lawyer on a defendant. When the Lord Chancellor, Chris Grayling was asked why he was proposing this change, he said:
“I don‘t believe that most people who find themselves in our criminal justice system are great connoisseurs of legal skills. We know the people in our prisons and who come into our courts often come from the most difficult and challenged backgrounds.”
What on earth did he mean?
It has been suggested that Grayling was implying ‘too thick to pick’. If that’s the case, and it sounds likely, it is a view not worthy of the great office that he holds.
Interestingly, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was quoted last weekend saying that this proposal was “perverse” and that another solution should be found. So perhaps the Coalition government is about to change its mind. All who value our system of justice must hope so, and perhaps the LibDem justice minister in the Lords, Tom McNally will be able to enlighten us when he responds to my question later today.
Lord Willy Bach is a backbench Labour Peer, and was until last year Shadow Justice Minister in the Lords
Published 26th June 2013