Try Red Pepper in print with our pay-as-you-feel subscription. You decide the price, from as low as £2 a month.More info ×
‘Roughed up by the police on Saturday night? Ring us for free advice . . .’ We have become overly familiar with crass ads run by claims companies and lawyers trying to drum up cases run on a ‘no win, no fee’ basis. So far, such arrangements have been largely restricted to routine accident claims.
But a new paper from the free-market Adam Smith Institute proposes that legal aid be scrapped in crucial areas of legal advice – actions against the police, medical negligence, education and housing disrepair – and replaced by ‘no win, no fee’ deals, or conditional fee agreements, as lawyers call them. The proposal will be music to the ears of policy makers eager to slash £350 million from the legal aid scheme.
The legal aid minister Jonathan Djanogly set out some alternative ways to deliver legal aid in a ministerial statement this summer. It was a mixed bag of ideas, including legal insurance policies, taking the interest from solicitors’ client accounts and ‘polluter pays’ schemes. In a collection of essays called Closing the Justice Gap, published in April by the research company Jures, the then shadow justice minister Henry Bellingham cited legal insurance products alongside other ideas such as a contingent legal aid fund (basically, a public-private partnership scheme financed by taking a percentage of damages recovered by successful claimants), as examples of ‘imaginative and radical ways’ to bring ‘new money into legal aid from outside the public sector’.
It seems an exercise in futility to oppose legal aid reform in the current fiscal context – and there is plenty about the current system that needs reforming. But policy-makers need to go back to first principles. They need to understand where ‘legal aid’ fits in.
‘One takes it to be axiomatic that in “a decent society”, legal rights and protections that are created to improve or safeguard sections of that society should be capable of being pursued,’ the legal academic Professor Stephen Mayson wrote in October (more in hope than confidence, one suspects). If, as Mayson suggests, ‘access to justice’ is part of what people recognise to be essential to a decent society, then the government shouldn’t just dump that responsibility on the private sector, expecting market forces to miraculously fill the vacuum. But what is especially alarming is that the ideas currently being put forward seem either half-baked or past their sell-by date.
In the case of insurance, Henry Bellingham wrote approvingly of the German experience of legal expenses insurance, where ‘a staggering 46 per cent’ of the adult population is covered by such policies. A legal expenses insurance market is also well established in the UK where between 10 and 15 million households have such policies (out of a total of 25 million).
But – and it’s a big ‘but’ – the industry is configured in a totally different way in the UK. Germans buy insurance because they fully intend to use it if the need arises. We don’t. Here legal insurance is given away with household or motor insurance policies or sold as an ‘add on’ to such policies for around £20 as opposed to the £200-300 that Germans pay. Our policies are much more limited; they don’t cover divorce, custody or much of what comprises ‘social welfare law’ and is covered under legal aid.
We can’t replicate the German model without dismantling the existing UK industry. That means the prospect of insurance products replacing legal aid is – as DAS, the biggest legal expenses insurer on the continent, recently acknowledged – ‘a non-starter’.
What of the new thinking from the Adam Smith Institute? Unsurprisingly, our free marketeers aren’t big fans of publicly funded law. ‘Civil legal aid continues to fail,’ they assert. Their proposal – to scrap legal aid for compensation claims – is hardly the magic panacea they suggest it is. The value of those compensation claims is £28.8 million (1.3 per cent) of a £2.1 billion budget.
The reasons why those difficult cases still have legal aid are largely sound. Consider someone beaten up by the police (an anti-war protester at a demo perhaps). No lawyer is going to run a case like that on a ‘no win, no fee’ basis – such cases are backed by insurance and an insurer isn’t going to touch it with a barge pole.
While leaving the fate of vulnerable people to the private sector is reckless, the access to justice lobby – campaigners, lawyers, the advice sector and trade unions – urgently needs new ideas. Unlike schools or hospitals, ‘access to justice’ sounds an abstract and remote concept – unless, that is, you are behind on your mortgage and your house is being repossessed, you’ve been made redundant or, god forbid, banged up and falsely accused of a crime.
Arguing for more money for lawyers is frankly unrealistic – and maybe it’s not the right answer anyway. There needs to be better education, more accessible information and, if needs be, easier access to the courts. In Closing the Justice Gap, Steve Hynes and I set out our recommendations, including establishing a free legal aid service for all (a telephone service supported by online materials along the lines of NHS Direct). We also call for the adoption of ‘access to justice’ foundation principles. Number one: ‘access to justice is the constitutional right of each citizen’.
You can read Closing the Justice Gap at www.jures.co.uk
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
’We believe in you. We are with you. We will never forget.’ Grenfell solidarity sweeps East London in mass banner drops from housing estates
Michael Calderbank profiles Jeremy Corbyn's new supporters in parliament
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continues to witness devastating political violence, but the world refuses to act. Ishiaba Kasonga and Serge Egola Angbakodolo ask why?
When fire safety has become a privilege for the rich, it’s time to stop austerity and fund emergency mass works to raise standards immediately, writes Jane Shallice
Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art
Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs
Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox
Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite
Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead
Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee
Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power
The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced
India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya
North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero
The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava
France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati
This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help
PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank
Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media
I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to
We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS
Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank
Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland
Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones
The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya
The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.
An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now
The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee