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Lady Hale attacks legal aid cuts

28 June 2011

Lady Hale has launched an outspoken attack on the government’s legal aid cuts, which she said would have a “disproportionate impact upon the poorest and most vulnerable in society”.

Her intervention comes as the Commons begins its second reading of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill tomorrow.

Delivering the Sir Henry Hodge Memorial Lecture at the Law Society last night, Lady Hale said the government’s own equality impact statement accepted that the cuts would have a disproportionate impact upon women, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities.

“And they say that this is justifiable because they are disproportionate users of the service in these areas.

“This is an interesting argument about which I had better not say anything more, as it is bound to come before us in one shape or form in future.”

Lady Hale said the Legal Action Group had said it feared that the cuts would lead to an ‘underclass of people disenfranchised from civil justice and indifferent to the rule of law’.

She agreed with a comment from judge Robert Martin, president of the Social Entitlement Chamber, who said the main flaw in the cuts was that they relied on thematic categories of law for determining who was in need.

“In real life, as we all know and research has shown, clients come with a variety of interlocking problems.

“Family breakdown can easily lead people into debt, if debts are not tackled early and in the right way, they can easily lead to homelessness. People need the right advice and they need it early, before things have escalated into court.

“The idea that the law in some of these areas is simple and easy to understand is laughable.”

Lady Hale said that, under European human rights laws, the state did not have to provide legal aid in all areas of civil law, but it did have to ensure access to the courts.

She said that opposition to the legal aid cuts through challenges in Strasbourg “may not take us very far”, particularly as ministers had added an exemption for cases where failure to provide legal services breached EU law.

Instead, Lady Hale said that if the nation wanted to spend less on lawyers, it must be prepared to “spend more on a very different style of court from the ones which we are used to”.

She concluded: “And in any event we have to be prepared to spend money on initial advice and assistance schemes because that is where most problems are solved.

“Courts are and should be a last resort but they should be a last resort which is accessible to all, rich and poor alike. The big society will be the big loser if everyone does not believe that the law is there for them.”

Categorised in:

Legal Aid Discrimination Courts & Judiciary