Legal Aid, the New Labour years

This one’s for @MerelyImputed, who asked me where he could read more about New Labour’s policies on Legal Aid. I know he’ll have read my previous posts on Legal Aid (The day justice died and Call me a cynic but…, although if you go back to my three part satirical short story on the Legal Services Act, Stepping up to the plate, you’ll find it crept in there too). I readily admit that much of the bitterness behind those posts is due to the fact that most people don’t seem to know or care what happened between 1999 and 2010 and/or just blamed lawyers for being “fat cats” (see Call me a cynic but… for the truth on earnings) and ambulance chasers. Like many solicitors, I feel the Law Society has never really grasped the nettle in any meaningful way. There are plenty of passionate solicitors who’re both willing and able to get their message across but the Law Society has never successfully brought this subject into the light (I even came across this article teaching lawyers how to dress for the press in 2002 in the course of collating articles and letters for this post!).

I want to give Tim an answer to his question asap so I’m not going to give a narrative of Labour’s changes here but I may come back to this. So, on to a little light reading. I did look for a detailed timeline of Legal Aid reforms I could link to while writing Call me a cynic but… but I couldn’t find one. If you’re keen enough to want to buy a book for a comprehensive review, I’d imagine your best bet is Hynes’ The Justice Gap, Whatever Happened to Legal Aid. I don’t have it but Legal Action Group books are usually a good bet.

One problem with publicising reforms has been that many have been technical and administrative and/or budgetary. This makes it difficult to give a snapshot of what has happened. There have been occasional wins, but they’ve never been major or involved a reversal of the overall trend eg the Legal Aid budget might go up to reflect increases in the number of criminal offences on the statute books without any increase in rates of pay for lawyers or the means test might increase the budget but only because the income threshold to qualify for Legal Aid is connected to benefits and they (used to) increase in line with inflation. I’ve chosen the articles below because, taken together, they seem to touch on most major issues facing Legal Aid lawyers from 2000 to 2010. By the way, yes. I freely admit that the links here are sympathetic to Legal Aid and the lawyers who do Legal Aid work. The world has quite enough Legal Aid and lawyer bashing stories in it already so I don’t feel any need to put the opposing view here and hold myself to a higher standard of reporting than the media who write those opposing stories.

Not an A grade effort for me but here’s an essay touching on some major changes.

In April 2001 the Law Society Gazette reviewed the switch from the Legal Aid Board to LSC, which helps to explain the administrative context and a month later it focused on reforms in criminal cases.

This Guardian article from 2008 expresses the rage of principled lawyers after a decade of Labour.

This 2011 article from the London Review of Books is another good one.

To my own surprise, I’ll add a Tory blog from 2010 to the list.

The Socialist Party featured this article in 2007.

The Law Society Gazette is a good weathervane if you want to know how solicitors viewed the New Labour years. Here are some of the letters it received during between 2000 and 2003 (don’t worry – the Gazette imposes a word limit. They know us well):
We need Legal Aid 3 June 2000
We must demand respect 16 June 2000
Not such a rosy view 4 August 2000
Feeling the pinch 2 Nov 2000
True Convictions 8 Jan 2001
Euro rights quiz 9 April 2001
Redistribute wealth 11 May 2001
Sad loss & contract muddle 4 April 2003
Staring into the abyss 17 April 2003
A job worth doing? 12 Sept 2003
I had a tougher time finding letters after 2004 (presumably the Gazette reorganised its layout) but do have some more for you:
Rates of decline 7 Oct 2006
Open a dialogue 12 Oct 2006
Under the bonnet 12 Oct 2006
There is also one unforgettable letter I was able to find by searching for “creme egg”, Lawyers left with egg on their faces 1 April 2010

I’ve picked out some news stories from the Gazette to show the continuing trend, from solicitors’ perspectives from 2004 to 2010:
Cash boost for DCA but Legal Aid slashed 15 July 2004
Legal Aid: £6 million boost but mps fear crisis 22 July 2004
LSC allocates more matter starts but lawyers warn on pay 19 May 2005
‘Tinkering’ Falconer rules out extra cash 14 July 2005
Solicitors off the hook 21 July 2005
Judges’ funding fears 27 April 2006
Outcry over fixed fee rates 27 July 2006
Cuts to fees for family work will ‘decimate’ practitioners 31 August 2006
Means test ‘disaster’ fears 7 Sept 2006
Labour MPs sign up to Legal Aid campaign 8 Feb 2007
Firms ditch Legal Aid contracts 22 February 2007
Ethnic minority groups act over LSC reforms 26 April 2007
Legal Aid in chaos as DSCC expands 17 Jan 2008
Minister questions Legal Aid priorities at 60th anniversary debate 1 May 2009
Provision gap in the East after Anglia law centres close 12 August 2009
Solicitors issue advice warning over child neglect cases 19 Nov 2009
Quarter of firms expected to walk away from Legal Aid in next five years 3 Dec 2009
New matter starts shortage reaching ‘crisis level’ 26 Nov 2009
Government’s £23 million Legal Aid cuts ‘affront to justice’ 21 Dec 2009
Survey reveals civil Legal Aid solicitors are ‘starved of cash’ 18 Feb 2010
Legal Aid cuts will happen ‘under any government’ 9 April 2010

If you have any other suggestions for reading on the New Labour era, let me know. I’d be happy to add to the list.

3 thoughts on “Legal Aid, the New Labour years

  1. merelyimputed

    Wow, you’ve done some homework there! Thanks for these. I’ll work my way through em.

    I’ve only been aware if the cuts and “reforms” of this administration, which as a now ex-Lib Dem are frankly akin to a kick in the testes. How anyone can decide that removing access to legal representation for the most vulnerable is the best way to make society a fairer place, which all of them say they want to do, is beyond me.

    Right, I’ll get on with my homework…

  2. merelyimputed

    Crikey. I’m less than a third of the way through and I’m thoroughly depressed. It looks like they followed the same ideology in all of their reforms, a continuation of the previous administrations marketisation combined with a series of reforms that have the effect of reducing the services provided, their quality, and raising barriers to access.

    When you read about specific issues, it looks like either an unintended consequence, or a product of the tension between the “old” culture and the new system. However, when you look at a longer timescale, it starts to look like a deliberate and orchestrated incremental removal of an essential aspect of welfare provision. I wonder if its possible to find out who advised on the various reforms – for example US insurance giants, international health service providers and management consultants were selected to draw up NHS reforms, and after the reforms were implemented the individuals who drew up the plans returned to their companies, now securing contracts as a direct result of the reforms they devised. Coincidence can be so profitable.

    Legal aid is different, as far as I can tell, in that there are no alternative providers seeking to milk the taxpayer cash cow and break up an efficient national monopoly, so I can’t see who directly benefits from the steady removal of legal representation for the most vulnerable. It clearly isn’t about cost, though is it? The legal aid bill is less than the taxbreaks Banks have secured in the last 2 years.

  3. Pingback: Vote of no confidence | Law Geek's Blog

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