Salivating Fox courtesy of Everything is Permuted (Flickr)
Today I wrote to my MP, Dr Fox. He is probably known to most of you as Secretary of State for Defence. I wrote to him about the proposed reforms of Legal Aid and in support of the Justice For All Campaign, which is launching in Parliament next week. The speed with which he replied (1 hour 43 minutes, since you ask) coupled with the amount of key favourable statistics he appears to have had right at his fingertips, and the odd inclusion of a paragraph on criminal legal aid which was not the subject of my letter at all, leads me to be a little bit suspicious I have been cut and pasted from some briefing. Notwithstanding the fact that this is clearly exactly what I should have expected of a busy MP and minister (especially one to whom it is probably immediately obvious that he has never received and is never likely to receive my vote) I find myself feeling a bit cheated about this, because I made a point of sending a totally custom letter rather than simply adapting a template.
But, whatever the process by which this emailed response was speedily put together it is the content of the response which I found rather more alarming – we must after all take these words to represent the accurate and considered view of the Minister (delegated to the aide who sent me the email but nonetheless signed from Liam Fox) and, according to the principle of cabinet collective responsibility, the Government at large. I’m not going to analyse the content here, I’m simply going to reproduce it in full with highlighting of the sections that forced my eyebrows to rise and my brow to furl and left me feeling that this government’s tendency to treat litigants as if they have flounced into court at the first hint of a spat just for a laugh as rather patronising as well as just plain inaccurate.
Dear Ms Reed
Thank you for contacting me about reforms to legal aid. I am afraid I am not going to be in the constituency until next weekend and due to pressure of commitments at the Ministry of Defence, I cannot attend the meeting you mention on 12 January.
I am sorry to have to disappoint you but members of the Government do not, by convention, sign any Early Day Motions formally support campaigns, as doing so is likely to breach the Ministerial Code’s rules on collective responsibility. This rule applies to all Ministers in any Government.
Legal aid forms a vital part of a system of justice of which we are rightly proud. The Government strongly believe that access to justice is a hallmark of a civilised society. However, the Government believes there is now a compelling case for going back to first principles in reforming legal aid.
Our current legal aid system has expanded in recent years, so much so that it is now one of the most expensive such systems in the world, costing the public purse more than £2 billion each year. It is now available for a very wide range of issues, including some that do not require any legal expertise to resolve. It cannot be right that the taxpayer is footing the bill for unnecessary court cases that would never have even reached the courtroom door, were it not for the fact that somebody else was paying.
The Government plans to introduce a more targeted civil and family scheme that will discourage people from resorting to lawyers whenever they face a problem. Instead, they wish to encourage people to consider more suitable methods of dispute resolution. Legal aid will still routinely be available in civil and family cases where people’s life or liberty is at stake, or where they are at risk of serious physical harm or immediate loss of their home. This includes asylum cases, cases involving debt and housing matters where someone’s home is at immediate risk, mental health cases, domestic violence and forced marriage cases, and in cases where people face intervention from the state in their family affairs that may result in their children being taken into care.
However, prioritising those areas requires that the Government make clear choices about the availability of legal aid in other areas. Issues that are not, generally speaking, of sufficient priority to justify funding at the taxpayer’s expense will therefore be removed from the scope of legal aid. This includes private family law cases, education, employment, immigration, some debt and housing issues, and welfare benefits, except where there is a risk to anyone’s safety or liberty, or a risk of homelessness. In many of these, the issues are not necessarily of a legal nature, but require other forms of expert advice to resolve.
In respect of eligibility, the Government proposes to make changes to means testing for non-criminal legal aid. These seek to ensure that those who, on the basis of their disposable capital or income, can pay or contribute towards the costs of their case should be asked to do so. Greater account will be taken in future of equity in people’s homes when assessing their capital means. A minimum £100 contribution to their legal costs will be introduced for all successful applicants with £1,000 or more disposable capital, and higher contributions will be expected from those who currently contribute to their legal fees.
The consultation document, along with the consultation questions on which the Government is seeking responses, are available on the Ministry of Justice website.
Thank you again for taking the time to contact me.