Sunday, June 16, 2013

Under the radar

Choose your enemies carefully. Immigrants, criminals, lawyers? You should be on safe ground. Justice, liberty and equality before the law? Then you could be in trouble. The problem is, they are all intrinsically linked. The government hopes that people will notice the former, but not the latter as it pushes through changes in legal aid. Maybe that is why they have escaped too much media attention.

Here are two excellent short articles from Nick Cohen and Francis FitzGibbon. Both highlight that one of the main consequence of the changes will be to protect government actions from legal scrutiny and redress. Cohen puts it succinctly,
If Britain had a liberal constitution, or any kind of constitution, the proposals would be seen for what they are: an assault on fundamental rights that shifts power from the individual to the state.
FitzGibbon highlights some of the proposed changes. Rather than bringing "price competition into the criminal legal aid market," they are proposing a bidding process for local monopolies that deprive clients of any choice.
There are currently about 1600 solicitors’ firms in England and Wales accredited by the government to do legal aid work. That number will drop to 400, each of which will be assigned a geographical area; big firms will be allowed to bid for multiple contracts. Contracts will be awarded to the lowest bidder, with the ceiling for bids set at 17.5 per cent below current rates. The winners will be allocated all the work, or a guaranteed proportion of it, in their area. A client will not be able to choose who represents him, but Grayling doesn’t think this matters since ‘I don’t believe that most people who find themselves in our criminal justice system are great connoisseurs of legal skills.’ Fees will be paid per case (at the moment lawyers are paid according to how long they spend on a particular case), making it financially unviable to spend the necessary time to prepare more complicated cases properly. The sensible thing would be to increase turnover by advising a rapid guilty plea.
It is a recipe for miscarriages of justice.

The proposals feature three common themes that run through much government policy making.

1. They privilege anecdote over evidence and ignore research.

2. They provide opportunities for private corporations to be given a monopoly, enabling them to make risk-free money from government contracts rather than entrepreneurial activity. (Eddie Stobart, the road haulage firm, intends to bid!).

3. The losers are the poor.

And we are seeing a slow, incremental centralisation of power in the hands of ministers who are not overly keen on criticism of their brilliant new ideas.

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