In response to the open letter of June 11 by solicitor Rachel Stevens regarding legal aid,
I recently met with a number of local criminal defence lawyers, including Rachel, in Holbeach. Following on from that positive and helpful meeting I have written to the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling to represent their concerns about the Government’s reforms to legal aid. I shall, of course, be forwarding his reply onto the lawyers who I met with.
There is clearly a balance to be struck here. I share Chris Grayling’s argument that bringing down the cost of legal aid is a necessity.
This Government inherited a legal aid system that cost more than two billion pounds a year and was hugely expensive by international standards.
France, for example, spends a fifth as much as we do, and Australia and Canada each spend significantly less.
That being so, we need to ensure that the reforms are fair and do not restrict access to justice. Standing up for the disadvantaged and the vulnerable is at the heart of my mission in politics.
It is only by reforming legal aid that we can ensure that the limited resources are targeted at those who need it most.
Legal aid will remain available for those who are in greatest need, but those who can afford to pay for their cases should do so.
Legal aid has expanded far beyond its original scope and is available for many things which should not require any legal expertise to resolve.
It has been used to provide taxpayer funding for advice on how to appeal decisions not to award welfare benefits, helping squatters to fight eviction proceedings and encouraging multiple judicial reviews of immigration and asylum decisions.
Clearly, this was unfair and unsustainable, and so there was no doubt about the need for reform.
I would certainly not provide taxpayer-funded legal aid to foreigners.
All parties accept that cuts to legal aid are necessary – indeed it was part of Labour’s election manifesto in 2010 – and I support tough decisions being taken to ensure access to public funding in those cases that really require it, the protection of the most vulnerable in our society and the efficient performance of our justice system. Nevertheless, good points have been made to me about choice of lawyers and access to justice in rural areas.
Small rural legal firms do important work and, like other vital local services, deserve and will get my support.
MP for South Holland
and the Deepings