In this post I want to draw the links between two current UK news stories. The first concerns the report today that forensic science services are operating in a risky way. These services, which are crucial to the criminal justice system, were largely privatised in 2012 in a move that was heavily criticised at the time. Since then, repeated concerns have been raised about it. It is a story with many affinities with the horsemeat scandal of 2013 that I posted about at the time, and with several other examples of privatization.
is not this aspect I am going to discuss, but something more specific: that
within today’s report one thing highlighted was that cuts in the legal aid
budget meant that defence
lawyers were unable to commission adequate forensic science. This is linked
to the wider issue because it arises from there being a private market in
forensic science, but results from a different political decision, that to
restrict legal aid.
me to the second news story from this week. Because legal aid is no longer
available in the vast majority of family law cases, there has been a huge rise
in people representing themselves (in 80% of cases only one party has legal
representation, in 60% of cases neither party has legal representation). This
means that abusive
ex-partners can get to cross-examine their victims in court (something that
cannot happen in criminal cases of abuse) causing massive distress.
The issue of
the consequences of cuts to the legal aid budget has
been highlighted for some time but inevitably it has taken a while before
they begin to bite in a widespread way. Lack of legal aid in immigration courts
has led to children
having to represent themselves. Even where legal aid is available, the cuts
have led to a shortage of legal aid lawyers (whose fees
have been cut), impacting on housing disputes and causing
amongst many of the (presumably) unintended consequences of the reform of legal
aid provision and serve as an illustration of that concept, discussed in my
book (pp. 26-31). But they are of a particular sort. As with the organization of
in another post, or in the superficially very different but in this respect
similar case of the
organization of dental services, they impact primarily upon the marginal
and/or demonized: the poor (obviously), immigrants and asylum seekers,
those accused of crimes, those on the edge of homelessness, the (largely) women
who suffer domestic abuse. In fact, it is perhaps because the latter group is
not confined to the socially marginal that the government have now launched an emergency
review of the problem?
seem an outrageous proposition that justice should be available to all. It’s
not even particularly expensive to provide it. Although the cuts to the legal
aid budget have been large in percentage terms, the absolute amount (£200-£300M
a year) is quite trivial in the context of overall government spending. The
effects are huge, not just on the individuals affected but on the wider sense
of a civil society to which law and justice are both fundamental and paramount.