Thursday, October 08, 2015

Cutting justice

This report was on Channel Four News tonight.

It is a horrible case. Their child was taken away because of suspected abuse after the parents took it to hospital, worried about a health problem. It was put up for adoption against their will. A criminal case was brought and they were able to prove that the marks on their baby were symptoms of disease, not abuse, and were cleared. Not only were the couple wrongly accused of a crime, they were accused of a crime that never happened.

The criminal courts had done their job, but they will never get their child back, because the case in the family court had already taken place and their child had been adopted. The obvious question is why was that evidence not presented at the earlier hearing? The answer is money. They could not afford legal representation. They had to represent themselves and were without the resources to investigate the case and bring in expert witnesses. Cuts had swept away their right to legal aid. This is the heart of the tragedy.

This is what the cuts really mean; innocent loving parents losing their child for life - losing their child for no reason at all - losing their child to a simple diagnostic error.

In a report by Louise Tickle on an attempt by a judge to help people forced to represent themselves, the judge noted,
In one three-month period last year, 80% of private family law cases saw at least one party trying to fight their case without any legal representation at all.
 And from a year ago, this piece points out:
The number of family law cases involving children in which neither party has legal representation has nearly doubled in the last year, a report by official auditors has found.
The knock-on effect has been to increase costs to the taxpayer because cases without lawyers can take 50% longer, the report by the National Audit Office (NAO) concludes.
The findings, released on Thursday, come weeks after a senior judge accused the government of washing its hands of the problem it had created by failing to provide legal aid for parents in child custody cases.
Yes, depriving people of proper representation is MORE expensive. There are no savings. Instead we are left with injustice and personal tragedy.

This is not another scandal about child protection. There are plenty of those, whether of ignoring abuse or over-zealously pursuing the innocent. Mistakes are inevitable. What matters is the opportunity people have to rectify them. That cannot happen without professional advice and advocacy.

The heavy cuts to legal aid are not a peripheral issue. They are central to a basic principle of democratic societies, equality before the law. Amongst the anti-lawyer rhetoric employed by the government lies the ruins of justice. And all we can see is the pain of ordinary people, living ordinary lives, who have simply been unlucky. What a mean spirited and ungenerous government it is to destroy lives in such a casual way and to remove the opportunity of redress against the state when it is the state that is in error. And for what?

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