Why legal aid cuts should worry the City too. PR campaigning was not enough

Catrin Griffiths

It’s sad, but the PR campaign against the Government’s legal aid proposals has not been as effective as it ought to have been.

The impact of the proposals on high street solicitors is, of course, alarming, but any argument based on that angle is bound to provoke cries of lawyerly protectionism. Indeed, the Daily Mail has already done the Government’s spin for it, republishing old statistics on legal aid fat cats. The campaign could have used a rapid rebuttal unit, since the debate over giving legal aid to asylum seekers or to judicial review (JR) is framed by wider political issues around Europe and compensation culture.

In the meantime, City lawyers have been largely silent. Depressingly, I heard a comfortably-off senior partner use the word ‘bleating’ last week when speaking of high street lawyers’ protests: the Daily Mail/MoJ axis has sure done its work.

Cutting legal aid is an attack on the poor. (And I don’t mean the criminal bar here, although their work rates would shame any beasted City associate.) Unrepresented defendants will become the norm in Crown Courts. Cases will take longer and be more likely to be appealed. The potential for miscarriages of justice will increase.

The legal sector should not necessarily be immune from budget cuts, but clogging up the courts with bewildered litigants-in-person isn’t even a cheap option.

Furthermore, the Government is proposing payment for permission work in JR cases only if JR applications are successful. Anyone now who wants to challenge public authorities and their various arms – such as G4S, say – will have to find someone willing to do all the prep for free. The outcome is inevitable: it will be harder to bring test cases and hold public bodies to account. In the world of the Daily Express, JR is a nasty European import, but more rational beings see it as a useful check on state power.

So the fact that Treasury counsel – the very barristers instructed by government – signed a protest letter against these proposals should be taken seriously.

City lawyers are proud of our legal system. It’s incorruptible, efficient and full of talent. We welcome oligarchs here to litigate, but we’re making it harder for our own citizens to challenge the state. Anyone see the irony?