THE BLOG
17/12/2013 08:41 GMT | Updated 16/02/2014 05:59 GMT

2013 in Review: Unions Are the Only Defence Ordinary People Have Left

In 2013, we have had to grow used to the fact that progress - in civic terms - can be reversed far quicker than it is made.

This observation is rendered fact by reductions in public spending which have also resulted in the rolling back of hard fought legal rights and access to justice, despite their having helped protect vulnerable citizens for generations.

Perhaps this isn't a happy note on which to focus my own review of a year when growth finally returned to the UK economy, but what price prosperity when ordinary working people have to forfeit so much?

My case for the prosecution begins with government cuts to the Ministry of Justice after Whitehall sought to slash £2billion off the department's bill. Initially, this manifested in the removal of Legal Aid for the vast majority of civil cases so that all but the most serious obstetric clinical negligence claims must now be privately funded, but further victims were close behind.

Couples going through complex divorces, often involving children will no longer receive support, unless domestic violence can be proven; the "no win no fee" scheme is now far less favourable to the claimant but conversely has improved for large corporations and insurance companies. Already, we are seeing an increase in the numbers of 'litigants in person' and a huge reduction in the public's right to proper justice through the courts.

2013 will also unfortunately be remembered as the year a financial barrier was erected around the Employment Tribunal. A new system of fees was introduced at the Tribunal, meaning those unlawfully treated by their employers must now pay up to £950 to bring their case. The trade union Unison has quite rightly launched a judicial review challenge to the fee system, but it remains to be seen if this will be successful.

With the public stripped of its legal safety net, historic challenges face the legal profession itself. Applications for the industry's Legal Practice Course in 2014 are now 37% down on their 2008 zenith. The government's austerity 'mandate' (I use that term advisedly) is literally forcing long established firms to close. Thousands of lawyers and support staff have already lost their jobs off the back of new regulations fixing fees for claims. A campaign of misinformation has been waged by insurers in the tabloid press with relentless reportage linking every conceivable type of civil justice to a mythical 'compensation culture' ultimately lengthening Britain's dole queues while protecting large corporations.

The legal services industry's challenges are not over. I expect a further impact over the next two years as more firms close, while an increase in professional negligence claims against lawyers and firms trying to operate on unsustainable margins will inevitably happen as corners have to be cut.

For ordinary people, this relentless attack on the system designed to support us cannot continue without significant casualties and miscarriages of justice. Even judicial review - the system's final stop gap against injustices caused by public administration - is being threatened with the Downing Street axe.

Only with strong trades unions can people maintain a level of protection against the MOJ's red pen drawing a line through their employment rights, pensions, working hours, or their ability to bring a legal challenge in the courts.

Membership remains strong, despite a general lack of balance in the media's portrayal of organised workers' rights. This is why I believe unions can and will continue to represent a powerful defence against further erosions of liberty.