Legal Aid

An Open Letter to Simon Hughes

PUBLISHED March 23, 2014

Dear Mr Hughes
Your appointment as Minister of State for Justice in December 2013 was welcomed by many of us who have spent the last 12 months fighting against the apocalyptic proposals contained in Transforming Legal Aid: Next Steps. One colleague of mine, however, immediately asked the question: “Shall we be jubilant or cynical?”

Your earlier approach

We welcomed the fact that you had been outspoken against the proposals contained in the first consultation on Transforming Legal Aid, when you remarked in your own response that the government was trying to impose a flawed model, criticising amongst other things the unrealistic timetable and the risks involved with a small number of providers, the false assumptions as to economies of scale, and the policy of culling many small and medium firms.
In November, you met the Justice Alliance as the deadline for the second consultation passed. You told us that, as a member of the joint committee on human rights, you were looking at legal aid and had decided that legal aid would be a priority piece of work; and you acknowledged the importance of giving rights to the poorest and most disadvantaged to challenge the state.
Most importantly, at its conference in Glasgow in October 2013, your party voted to oppose further cuts to legal aid until it could be proved that there would be no adverse effect upon access to justice.
Upon your appointment in December, you were described as “a passionate voice for the party’s principles and values” by Nick Clegg. You were quoted  ( 25435544) as saying,  “Issues of  justice and civil liberties have been my passions since I was a teenager”; “Justice and civil liberties are also core issues for every Liberal Democrat in the country”.
We thought that – at last – there would be a sensible voice on the other side of the table, someone who would listen to the evidence and argument that we  had put forward.

Your reality

Most, if not all, of the concerns raised by yourself and others were not addressed in the second consultation document.  The headlines said that client choice was back, but the true reality would be the closure of most criminal law firms, and the wholesale destruction of the criminal justice system and the rule of law.
We hoped that legal aid cuts would not go the same way as university tuition fees and secret courts. But that appears to be exactly what has happened.  It is easy to shout and preach about the unfairness from outside.  It is clearly more difficult to maintain that position when inside, and at a time when most would expect (demand) you to have the courage of your convictions and beliefs.
What we had from you on the crucial questions was silence.
Instead, your first pronouncement was to call for the legal profession to do more to reflect modern Britain and to increase the number of female and ethnic minority barristers (and presumably solicitors). You appear to have completely overlooked the effects of the cuts in legal aid, despite acknowledging in your response to the first consultation that those proposals would be adverse to small or medium sized  enterprises and Black and minority ethnic firms.
Perhaps you should take a look at the concerns  raised by others, such as the Society of Asian Lawyers, which has pointed out that a disproportionate number of the firms that have closed in the last four years have been owned by Black and Asian lawyers, and that a similarly disproportionate number of those that would be forced to close as a result of the proposals will be Black and Asian owned or controlled.
As a result of the proposed draconian cuts, the legal profession will become the preserve of the rich and privately educated, those who can afford to fund themselves through university and law school, and those who will not be reliant on future income to pay off any loans. No chance, then, for the young people from poorer backgrounds to break into a profession which you believe is still dominated by white male Oxbridge graduates.
Perhaps your focus should be on encouraging the Ministry of Justice to pay a proper rate for a proper service, and not to cut legal aid funding to the bone and beyond.
Much was hoped for when you took up your position within the Ministry, especially given the vote taken by the Liberal Democrats at conference. Within a matter of months, however, the chant outside the Ministry on Friday 7 March was apposite:
“Simon Hughes! Shame on You!”
Rakesh Bhasin, Steel & Shamash