On 7 November 2012 the BBC reported that Justice Secretary Chris Grayling was “concerned” about public confidence in the legal aid system, and that he had ordered an “immediate examination of aspects of the system that affect its credibility with the public”. Only a few months later, Mr Grayling appeared to have made up his mind about how we, the public, feel about legal aid. In the introduction to the government’s consultation on “Transforming legal aid” on 9 April 2013, Mr Grayling announced that the legal aid system had “lost much of its credibility with the public”. The radical measures he is proposing are “designed to restore the public’s faith in the system”. Public confidence in legal aid requires boosting, he said, and his proposals will achieve that while saving costs at the same time.
Support for legal aid
But has ‘the public’ really lost so much confidence in legal aid? Here’s a quick look at the evidence on either side of the argument. In a survey commissioned by the Bar Council and carried out by ComRes in which a representative sample of 2,033 British adults were interviewed, 67% said that legal aid is “a price worth paying to ensure we have a fair society, regardless of its cost”. 68% agreed that at less than 0.5% of annual Government spending, legal aid is “a worthwhile investment in our basic freedoms”. On the other side of the argument the Government has not produced any evidence to support its argument about the loss of public confidence in the legal aid system.
The government’s lack of evidence
In fact the Government has repeatedly refused a request made by under the Freedom of Information Act for information on the examination into the public’s confidence in legal aid announced by Mr Grayling in November 2012 . The request for a copy of “the terms of reference of this investigation, and any internal correspondence relating to it” was first refused on 15 March 2013 on the grounds that “Ministers and officials are still in the process of formulating the relevant policy” in relation to the “legal aid credibility review”. The request was renewed once the consultation period ended on 4 June 2013, but was refused again on 10 July 2013 for the same reason. The response explained that “the review of public confidence in the legal aid system is still under development”.
So while there is evidence suggesting that the public supports the legal aid system, there doesn’t appear to be any to support the Government’s view that the system has lost its credibility with the public. This is very concerning, given the fact that the Government is using this argument to justify changes that will have such serious consequences on many aspects of our social and legal system. Major charities and professional bodies, including many working for the Government have raised concerns about how the proposals will undermine the quality of criminal defence and create a risk of miscarriages of justice, prevent Government agencies from being legally held to account for their wrongdoings, excluding some members of society from being able to have their legal rights enforced.
Join us at the Rally for Legal Aid on 30th July from 4.30pm to show your support for legal aid! Download the flyer here