Thursday, April 05, 2007

Justice - Access Denied

April is the month where the first of the changes to legal aid will come into play. Marketisation and competitive tendering will take over and once the cornerstone of equal justice will become a thing of the past. The new contracts drawn up by the Legal Services Commission where 92% legal aid firms have signed is more akin to a "gunshot wedding". Fisher Meredith solicitors, Ole Hansen and Partners have refused to sign. Bindman and Partners signed at the last minute.

According to the Law Society 99% of legal aid solicitors oppose the changes to legal aid yet New Labour is gung-ho on pushing them through. These contracts put legal aid firms in a Catch 22 situation: sign the contract or stop doing legal aid work. Legal aid firms will simply not be able to afford to represent people. The Law Society is pursuing a court case against the government regarding these changes to legal aid contracts.

"Legal aid is already on its knees. If the government continues to drive these cuts forward they may sign the death knell for publicly funded legal representation across England and Wales"..

As Jon Rogers quite rightly argues on his blog, this is a trade union issue as well. He also links to a very good piece by Matt Foot about how these changes to legal aid could create more miscarriages of justice especially with New Labour's obsession with law and order.

Already law centres are under threat, Stockport Law Centre may have to close because of the changes. And it is not just the changes to legal aid that is having an impact on law centres. Hammersmith and Fulham council has just published its funding for the voluntary sector 2007-2009. The Tory council aims to slash 60% of the local law centre's funding.

These attacks on public services are not just a trade union issue they are an issue for the whole of the Left. We will witness free legal advice slashed, underminded, starved of funding and ultimately destroyed. And Vera Baird (Department Constitutional Affairs which oversees the Legal Services Commission) has faithfully promised the Treasury a 5% cut in funding.

Access to Justice Alliance will be holding a week of action from the 14th-18th May highlighting the changes to legal aid under the slogan "Justice - Access Denied".

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