The government’s Transforming Legal Aid consultation closed on 4 June. Approximately 16,000 responses have been submitted by organisations and individuals a huge response to a consultation about legal aid.
Readers of Inside Time may have noticed that ;no significant efforts were made by the Ministry of Justice to consult prisoners or to enable them to respond. This is despite the fact that substantial cuts are planned to legal aid for prisoners which may have a serious impact upon their access to justice and the courts.
The government says it will be considering the responses carefully. It has been reported that the analysis of the responses has been outsourced to a private company. The Ministry of Justice has not yet disclosed how much it has paid for this service.
Many responses to the consultation by representative bodies have been published. There does not appear to be any significant support for the proposals other than from within the government and they have been widely criticised by many including 600 senior judges, The Parole Board, HM Prisons Inspectorate, the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) and even the government’s own lawyers!
Campaigners and respondents to the consultation argue that the proposals in the paper will have a devastating impact upon the quality of legal services for people who need legal aid and upon the criminal justice system.
As far as prisoners and those charged with criminal offences are concerned, it will mean the disappearance of smaller, expert firms to be replaced by very large contractors, some of whom are likely to be corporations like G4S and Eddie Stobart who have no track record in providing legal services.
They have pointed to fiascos involving interpreters in the court system and electronic tagging services in the community as evidence of the dangers of encouraging large private corporations into the market for legal aid.
They have also highlighted the very large sums of money which are already paid to large private companies for services in prisons and the community which have not delivered either savings to the taxpayer or sufficient quality.
Campaigners and protesters which have included large numbers of non-lawyers have participated in major demonstrations in London and Manchester during May and June. A Save UK Justice e-petition has been signed by over 90,000 people.
As most prisoners are unable to access the internet they have been prevented from signing this petition.
The government has described the responses as hysterical and guided by lawyers’ desire to protect their incomes. They have admitted that the reforms will impact most upon the poorest and most vulnerable in society but have insisted that there will still be access to legal aid for those who need it and that they will build in safeguards to ensure quality.
The reforms which the government wish to bring in were not part of the manifestos of either the Conservative or Liberal Democrat parties. The current proposal is that they will be introduced without new legislation but by an administrative process called negative statutory instrument’.
At the time of writing there are no plans even for a proper Parliamentary debate to take place in which Ministers can be questioned by other MPs.
The Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling, will be questioned by the Justice Select Committee (made up of MPs from all parties) on 3 July. The Government’s response to the consultation is due by Autumn it is anticipated that it will be in September.
The cuts to legal aid for prison law could be brought in as soon as October. If they are introduced as planned, from that month, prisoners will no longer be entitled to legal aid to challenge categorisation or adjudication decisions by Governors or to receive help with rehabilitation or resettlement problems.