Campaigners angry at legal aid cuts

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Indy Politics

Vast swathes of the British population will be barred from accessing publicly-funded legal advice and representation following Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke's decision to press ahead with reforms, campaigners said.

Legal aid "will no longer routinely be available for most private family law cases, clinical negligence, employment, immigration, some debt and housing issues, some education cases, and welfare benefits", Mr Clarke said.

The moves will put publicly-funded legal advice and representation "beyond the reach of vast swathes of the British population", the civil rights group Liberty said.

Mr Clarke said they will still be able to use "alternative, less adversarial means of resolving their problems" and insisted that "fundamental rights to access to justice will be protected".

But Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti said the moves were a "slap in the face" for "ordinary families, children and the disabled".

She said: "The Government says, 'We are all in this together', but how many MPs would choose to go to court without a lawyer if their partner denied them access to their child?

"Is it right that only criminal defendants and professional footballers should get legal advice?

"Politicians have spent years wagging their fingers at 'fat cat lawyers' but today's slap in the face goes to ordinary families, children and the disabled."

Roger Smith, director of the campaign group Justice, added: "We face the economic cleansing of the civil courts.

"Courts and lawyers will be only for the rich. The poor will make do as best they can with no legal aid and cheap, privatised mediation.

"There will be no equal justice for all - only those with money."

Patients' charity Action against Medical Accidents (AvMA) warned that the Government was "deluding itself when it says it wants to preserve access to justice for clinical negligence victims and simply change the route by which they access it".

Peter Walsh, AvMA's chief executive, said: "The only way that the reforms can save money overall is if large numbers of people damaged by clinical negligence are unable to take cases forward at all.

"It cannot be right for Ken Clarke to be allowed to trim his budget by imposing even bigger costs on the NHS.

"Depriving victims of clinical negligence access to justice is even worse, and in addition to the injustice, the NHS would be deprived of vital learning about what goes wrong."

He went on: "Even if the effect on patient safety was minimal, the extra costs of dealing with avoidable medical accidents would dwarf any savings achieved by the Ministry of Justice. It is time for a rethink. Clinical negligence must be treated as a special case."

The legal aid cuts face widespread opposition, with actress Joanna Lumley adding her voice to the calls from solicitors, barristers and senior judges for Mr Clarke to think again.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: "At more than £2 billion a year, we have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world.

"The current system encourages lengthy, acrimonious and sometimes unnecessary court proceedings, at taxpayers' expense, which do not always ensure the best result for those involved.

"We need to make clear choices to ensure that legal aid will continue to be available in those cases that really require it, for the protection of the most vulnerable in society, and the efficient performance of the justice system.

"Our proposals aim to radically reform the system and encourage people to take advantage of the most appropriate sources of help, advice or routes to resolution - which will not always involve the expense of lawyers or courts."

Labour MP John McDonnell, secretary of the Justice Unions Parliamentary Group and member of the Family Courts Unions cross party group, said: "This is a denial of justice to large numbers of people in desperate circumstances.

"It strips away another key element of the welfare state. Access to justice for all is a fundamental principle of any democratic system."

Bob Reitemeier, chief executive of The Children's Society, added: "There is a danger with these reforms that access to justice for children and young people will be seriously undermined.

"In a rush to achieve financial savings the Government has failed to recognise that children and young people are different from adults."

Steve Hynes, director of the Legal Action Group (LAG), said: "These legal aid cuts are penny wise, but pound foolish.

"The bulk of them fall on the sort of face to face advice services which can deal with legal problems before they spiral out of control and lead to expensive court cases.

"The Government will be acting as judge and jury on whether cases brought against it should be supported by legal aid.

"LAG believes an independent appeals system is essential to eliminate the risk of real or perceived political bias in decisions on entitlement to legal aid."

Des Collins, a senior partner at Collins Solicitors, added the "unprecedented move ... will effectively reduce access to justice to a nominal level or remove it altogether".

"Some cases are big and some are small, but it remains a fundamental right of people in the UK to be able to seek redress through the courts and the Government appears to be hell-bent on making that as difficult as possible," he said.