Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

The Billy-no-mates service

It's tricky defending a public service in these straitened times when it sounds like a charity appeal for lawyers. Instead of legal aid, let's talk about 'access to justice', says Jon Robins, and ensure that people get it

May 7, 2010
5 min read


Jon RobinsJon Robins is a freelance journalist and editor of www.thejusticegap.com


  share     tweet  

There is one small but vital backwater of our public services that you won’t be hearing about in the election: legal aid. Not for nothing has it been called the ‘most friendless wing of the welfare state’.

It was the Attlee government that introduced our system of legal aid in 1949. The architects of the new system decreed that state funding shouldn’t be restricted to those people ‘normally classed as poor’ but should also include those of ‘small or moderate means’.

That scheme is now in danger of being reduced to a minority sink service. Eligibility for legal aid dropped from 80 per cent of the population in Attlee’s day to around two-thirds by the mid-1980s. But the steepest decline has come under New Labour. According to the Ministry of Justice’s latest figures, fewer than one in three of us (29 per cent) now qualify for help. The whole scheme survives on a fixed budget of £2 billion – and even that small sum is too dear for both of the main parties.

Crisis is now endemic to legal aid since a fixed budget was imposed in 1999. Social welfare law – that is, welfare benefits, immigration, employment, housing, discrimination – is having the life squeezed out of it by a spiralling criminal budget. This was an entirely foreseeable consequence of ‘tough on crime and forget about the causes of crime’ government policy and 13 years of relentless law-making (there have been more than 60 new pieces of criminal justice legislation since 1997).

But why should we care? It’s tricky, possibly impossible, defending a public service in these straitened times if it sounds like a charity appeal for lawyers. So instead of legal aid, let’s talk about ‘access to justice’, a notion that covers the ability of people to enforce our rights. This is not a plea to pay lawyers more money – far from it, there is excess in the system and some lawyers are paid way too much. It is a call for better education, more accessible information and, if needs be, easier access to the courts.

Equal access to justice should be regarded as a fundamental democratic right. Promoting it is about making sure we as a society are sufficiently literate about our rights to know when they are being abused and what to do if they are. It’s not about creating a generation of ‘compo crazy’, responsibility-shirking litigants.

But ‘access to justice’ is a hard sell. The Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland has reflected on the ‘Billy-no-mates’ status of publicly-funded law. Unlike schools or hospitals, legal aid seems ‘technical and remote to all but those who’ve had to use it’, he wrote in 2006.

That’s the point: we don’t appreciate the value of access to decent advice until we need it, and then it’s a life-saver. Where do you go when you are two months behind on your mortgage and your house is being repossessed, when you are made redundant without being told why, or, God forbid, banged up and falsely accused of a crime you didn’t commit?

I recall where I was when I understood that the ‘credit crunch’ was more than the latest irritating journalist cliché – that it was a phenomenon with real, human casualties. It was Dover County Court, one Wednesday morning in mid-April 2008. I was there in a professional capacity, writing an article for the Observer about ‘repossessions day’. District Judge Parnell had 35 cases to get through.

The court was an unprepossessing 1970s concrete block, but the scenario playing out in its waiting room was Dickensian. ‘People often arrive traumatised,’ Jacqui O’Carroll, a Citizens Advice Bureau advisor, told me. Outside the court anxious homeowners struck deals with mortgage company ‘agents’ (often trainee lawyers, instructed to act on the behalf of a company) to either pay back arrears in stages or give up their homes.

‘Homeowners arrive unsure of what’s going on, totally ill-informed, and prepared to lose everything because they think there’s no alternative,’ Jacqui said. The pressure is unbearable ‘especially from the less scrupulous providers who will insist they’ll get possession and even tell homeowners not to bother turning up’.

In Jacqui’s previous session she reckoned she prevented five people losing their homes. The dismal irony was that much of this pain was largely unnecessary. As she explained, borrowers are entitled to repay debts over the remaining period of a mortgage, no matter what lenders tell them. Many homeowners were handing over their keys or signing up to unrealistic repayment schemes for no good reason.

Three months later I was in a call centre in Birmingham for another Observer article (it’s not all glamour, you know). On this occasion I was reporting on the work of the National Debtline, a free helpline taking 500 calls a day. I mention this because although there is a fledgling version of a legal version of the National Debtline, it is under-resourced, under-promoted and under-used. I have often heard from lawyers and advisors that there is no substitute for face-to-face advice. I am not convinced.

As I listened to phone calls, many followed the same pattern. People have been putting off picking up the phone for months but as they talk through their problems anxiety gives away to relief. They realise they can keep their homes, sort their debts and life can return to normal. Sensible advice is followed by referrals to the internet and information packs dispatched in the post. We need a network of advice so that people don’t fall through the gaps and end up in places like Dover County Court signing their homes away to sharks, leading to more misery for themselves and their families and greater cost to society.

Jon Robins is a freelance journalist. www.jonrobins.info

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

Jon RobinsJon Robins is a freelance journalist and editor of www.thejusticegap.com


Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism

Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists

Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson

As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win

The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution

Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.

‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright