Is there anyone left who Chris Grayling hasn’t ignored?
Alarming warnings about the impact of legal aid cuts came from parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights last week. But the Justice Minister has given advance notice that he intends to do what he has always done, and carry on regardless. Disaster lies ahead for people in the UK who have already suffered enough.
The story of legal aid cuts is partly a political one.
Chris Grayling, it is regularly pointed out, has reached the career height of Justice Minister with no professional legal background. This needn’t be a fatal flaw, but it is all the more reason for the Minister to heed the counsel of experts around him.
He is, after all, introducing the most far-reaching changes to the legal aid system in generations. No more help for someone who doesn’t satisfy a ‘residency test’ in the UK. Tighter restrictions and who can and cannot challenge government decisions.
And the Minister hasn’t lacked for expert advice. David Lammy MP, one of the few thorns in the government’s side over legal aid, has provided a handy list of experienced legal professionals who have voiced their concerns. The chair of the Supreme Court is worried that the cuts are ill-conceived, as are the Law Society and Bar Council. Over 100 of the coalition’s own solicitors are opposed. Dominic Grieve, the attorney general and Chris Grayling’s Ministerial colleague, is opposed. The grassroots campaign group Save Justice gathered hundreds of young lawyers to protest in Whitehall, and thousands of people to petition the Deputy Prime Minister.
We can now add to that list the influential cross-party Joint Committee on Human Rights, a committee which includes among its number such legal heavy-hitters as Baroness Helena Kennedy QC. The committee voiced its frustration in a new report on Friday:
We regret that the Secretary of State was not prepared to wait for our Report before proceeding further. We are not convinced that there is sufficient urgency behind these proposals, nor certainty about their human rights implications, to justify the Government in proceeding so quickly with bringing them into force.
The Minister gave evidence to the committee last month, but this set of experts was of no more interest to him than any other. He explained that he was not minded to delay the implementation of his reforms to consider their recommendations. His “points of principle” on this – those warned against by so many legal experts – were fixed.
Grayling’s cuts are thus starting to take on the look of scorched-earth policy, pursued as a means to express political power. If the reforms in their current state go through, the next government will be left trying to rebuild from scratch access to a justice system which has been internationally envied for centuries. This was one global race Britain won long ago – and the coalition is intent on dismantling it.
But today’s report isn’t only a story about politicians. What about those on the wrong end of the Minister’s “principles”?
Here is one victim of the Minister’s ‘residence test’. A woman who has been trafficked into the country to work as a prostitute might have arrived on a valid visa. But she will likely have had her passport swiftly taken from her: this is precisely the sort of control traffickers use. So by the time she needs legal advice (after she has escaped or been abandoned), has her visa lapsed? Do the stamps in her passport mean anything anymore? Is she in the UK legally or not? How grave are the dangers facing her or her family from her traffickers back home?
It will be pointless to even start asking those questions, because there will be no funding to try and unpick the answers. At the root of legal wrangling and political showmanship there are some complex lives that need to be set right. And that is about to get much, much harder.