Legal Aid: If the Cuts Proceed We Will See a Boom in Crime and the Filling Up of Prisons

24/01/2012 11:30 GMT | Updated 25/03/2012 10:12 BST

Last week the true impact of the government's cuts became very clear. It is women, children, the elderly and the homeless that are going to get hit the worst. If this bill is pushed through parliament it is the MPs, peers and members of the coalition that must take responsibility for the violence, social breakdown and the economic cost to the taxpayer that is being kicked off.

In the UK two women a week die as victims of domestic violence. According to recent analysis, only 46% of victims would meet the government's rules for getting legal aid, leaving many women in a vicious cycle of violence and the risk of murder.

Every year between 750,000 and 900,000 children in the United Kingdom are adversely affected by domestic violence. Lord McNally said government is going to leave these children in these desperate situations.

Lord McNally said there will be no legal aid for women who are trafficked for prostitution/slavery. There will be no legal aid for abuses by the State such as false imprisonment by the police except in the most 'serious' cases, whatever they might be. There will be no legal aid for people with Rachman style landlords until the damage is so bad that it seriously threatens their health.

The turmoil of the government policy was made clear when McNally, minister for justice in the lords, said that police would take care of child abduction cases so there was no need to fund legal aid for these cases.

They don't get involved unless there is a court order, because without such an order, they cannot know whether the person complaining to them is the one the children normally live with or the other parent seeking to snatch the children. So the police cannot just walk in and take a child. The parent that wants to take custody of the child must make a court application. The Minister says this is simple - even for a parent out of their mind with worry for their children. It is hard to justify the claim that the parent does not need legal aid to do this.

This week the lords debate day six of Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. This bill is being sold to peers on the back of £2 billion savings in the MOJ. The government has failed to demonstrate or prove they will make any savings and the indicators are these cuts will cost more than they will save. The leading civil servants in the MOJ have failed to explain how they even hope to achieve this savings.

This fact was made clear yesterday when the light was shone on the financial operations of the MOJ. In front of the Public Accounts committee Sir Suma Chakrabarti KCB, Permanent Secretary, talked at length about 'economic modeling' and his skills as a 'economist' but he found it very hard to explain where all the money in the Ministry of Justice is going and why they are two years behind on their accounting. They will not get their accounts up to date until 2015.

Sir Suma and his colleague Peter Handcock CBE, Chief Executive, HM Courts and Tribunals Service, spoke in 'mandarin' and made heavy work of blaming a computer system called Libra, and the need to understand the 'range of manipulations' that the data can make. At one point the

Chair of the committee Margaret Hodge said "if you don't know where your costs are you end up cutting front line services such as legal aid."

The fact that the department who are responsible for making the cuts which will impact access to justice to children, women who are victims of domestic violence, women who are trafficked for sex and the homeless do not even know their own budgets is the core problem. This is consistent with the accountancy practice in the MOJ.

The Secretary of State for Justice, Ken Clarke, gave the first reading of the bill on the 21st of June 2011. The impact assessment that the government published with the bill stated that if the bill is passed the results will include 'reduced social cohesion', 'increased criminality', 'reduced business and economic efficiency' and increased costs for other departments.

When challenged on the accuracy of the impact assessments and the claimed contributions to reducing the deficit, Sir Suma explained that there are a range of impacts that can be identified, but the MoJ cannot say how people's behaviours will change or what the financial consequences will be. He opaquely observed that the MOJ "does not try to monetise or measure the impact and benefit assessment" but it does "follow the government impact assessment guidelines."

Using the best available data from the MOJ the King's College report has found that these uncalculated consequences will on a conservative estimate add up to well over half of the claimed savings. In other words, the savings will not be the £350 million trumpeted by the MoJ, but £350 million less the many tens, (if not hundreds) of millions of pounds cost of all these uncalculated consequences.

Well here's one for you Sir Suma, and please approach this with an excel sheet and your economist hat on. A 2009 study by PriceWaterhouseCoopers assessing the economic benefits of legal aid in Australia found that, with respect to the court service, the benefits of providing legal aid outweighed the costs. The study concluded: "Legal aid demonstrably benefits those receiving legal aid support, those people and businesses they have contact with, the community more broadly and the efficiency of the legal system as a whole."

Here's another one. Countless studies by the Howard League for Penal Reform indicate that access to justice and legal aid reduce criminality and build a more cohesive and fairer society. In simple terms people who have access to law tend not to take the law into their own hands. Legal aid is the tool that gives people the access to justice and gets their voice heard.

As the debate about the legal aid cuts has gone along, particularly in the House of Lords, it is clear that the government do not actually understand the legal aid system, the number of people who benefit from it and its cost. To make any informed decision the MOJ must provide the figures. This is something they have admitted they cannot do because of the shortcomings of their accounting system. But this does not explain why they refused to take the advice of the Justice Select Committee to undertake some qualitative research in order to have some basis in reality for their assumptions.

Reducing funding to legal aid generally by an arbitrary sum will not change the percentage of abuse or waste within the legal aid system. Cutting legal aid for women who are being beaten by their abusive partners does not take them further away from being murdered. It does not stop the beating. Cutting legal aid from a child that is witnessing daily violence and poverty does not stop the child growing up angry and turning into a criminal. Cutting legal aid from a child that has brain damage at birth at the hands of a bad doctor or nurse does not make that life better. Cutting legal aid for housing benefit mistakes does not stop families being made homeless as a result of the inevitable rent arrears.

Only with increased activity and analysis on quality control can waste (and therefore cost) be reduced in a meaningful way, and thus savings made which will not hit the vulnerable, whom legal aid is designed to protect. Cuts which may actually increase the deficit should be avoided, rather targeted areas of potential savings should be studied and acted upon giving a more efficient system and a real contribution to the deficit reduction target.

The alternative, if the cuts proceed as the government currently proposes, is that we will see a boom in crime and the filling up of prisons. All these financial costs of the courts, the prisons, the police, the deaths and the vandalism will have to be paid for by the taxpayer. If the MOJ's budgets are out of control now they will sink all government savings by 2015. But the biggest costs will be paid by the women who did not escape their abuser in time, the trafficked girls trapped in prostitution, the homeless families, the snatched children and the ill old person sitting in badly neglected housing with uncaring landlords. This will be the result of your fiscal and budgetary incompetence.

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