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Brexit is being paid for at the expense of “swingeing” cuts in legal aid and the courts, threatening access to justice, a former head of the solicitors’ profession warns.
Kevin Martin, who was president of the Law Society from 2005 to 2006, said that the cuts continue despite the “best efforts” of the Bar Council and Law Society.
“The most urgent and concerted action is now necessary if we are not to suffer a fatal undermining of our legal aid system and the provision of access to justice to those who most need it,” Martin says.
He was responding to a recent article in The Times by Andrew Langdon, QC, chairman of the Bar of England and Wales. Martin told The Brief that Bar leaders were pursuing an “honourable but frustrating campaign”.
“These cuts did not start in 2006; they go back much further. Franchising, introduced by Lord Mackay [of Clashfern, the Conservative lord chancellor between 1987 and 1997] in the early 1990s was the start of the onslaught.
“Lord Irvine [of Lairg, Labour’s lord chancellor between 1997 and 2003] announced further swingeing cuts at the Law Society conference in 1997.”Martin said that the next lord chancellor, Labour’s Lord Falconer of Thoroton, “who now professes to oppose further cuts … took up the cudgels with relish in 2006 and that process was continued by successive lords chancellor/justice ministers: [Jack] Straw, [Ken] Clarke and [Chris] Grayling being notable enthusiasts”.
He added: “Throughout my term as a Law Society office holder [from 2003 to 2006] huge amounts of time and resource were devoted to securing the survival of a viable legal aid service but with little impact or success. The problem was encapsulated by a then-shadow minister who said that legal aid was not ‘a manifesto item’.
“It has always been ripe for plucking and yet is small change in the context of overall public expenditure.”
Martin also claimed that the chancellor of the exchequer “has had no difficulty finding £3 billion to defray the costs of Brexit: roughly double the now reduced legal aid budget. Most other government departments merely suffer cuts in their annual increases rather than actual reductions”.
Martin continued: “Threats to the sacrosanct rule of law are not idle. Respect for the rule of law absolutely underpins our society. It has been undermined by governments of every hue for more than 20 years. Courts, too, are underfunded and the independence of the judiciary does not seem to be a priority.”