Lawyers have branded the government’s £1.5 billion deal with the DUP ‘political bribery’ and called for more funds for legal aid.
The sum of money that the prime minister, Theresa May, pledged to Northern Ireland in return for the ‘confidence and supply’ deal with the 10 DUP MPs to prop up her minority government, equates roughly to the legal aid budget.
Over the past decade legal aid lawyers have faced swinging cuts and have the prospect of further fee reductions on the horizon. They have been told that in times of austerity difficult choices had to be made, and the money was not there to continue to fund legal aid at previous levels.
As May told the nurse who questioned her on her falling salary before the election, there is no ‘magic money tree’. Yet, now it appears that there is a magic money tree when the government needs there to be.
Commenting on the deal, Greg Powell, president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitor’s Association, said: ‘It is the rotten borough politics of the eighteenth century. Nothing reveals more that the legal aid budget is a matter of politics not affordability.’
He said: ‘Twelve years ago Jack Straw lead the way in establishing the myth that legal aid was unaffordable. A billion pounds worth of cuts followed, accompanied by the constant erosion of value through inflation, while each ratchet upwards of VAT filtered into the total budget unremarked. Suddenly the same cynicism appears in the blatant political bribery of the DUP in the sum of £1.5 billion.’
James Parry, partner at Liverpool firm Parry Welch Lacey and chairman of the Law Society’s criminal law committee, said: ‘It’s very odd that Theresa May can produce £1.5 billion when we’ve endured years of austerity and abandoned people’s legal and human rights to legal representation by cutting legal aid provision.bIt strikes me as being utterly unjust and improper, and makes me fizz with anger.’
A letter in The Times newspaper today, from His Honour John Samuels, QC, asked: ‘Will the attorney-general explain in what way the provisions of the Bribery Act 2010 do not apply to the deal with the DUP?
‘The act defines bribery as seeking to influence a decision-maker (namely a voting MP) by giving that person some kind of extra benefit. The financial package negotiated whereby one part of the UK will receive extra funding out of the taxation imposed on other parts of the UK solely to benefit the recipients of that funding is in common parlance, and in law, a bribe.’
Parry added: ‘If he is right, it is open to someone to take a private prosecution against Theresa May?’
The deal, said Steve Hynes, director of the Legal Action Group, will make it harder to justify any further legal aid cuts in England and Wales when twice as much per person is spent on legal aid in Northern Ireland. ‘Due to its history Northern Ireland has a separate legal aid system, which has avoided the same level of cuts as England and Wales. Just under £60 per capita is spent on civil and criminal legal aid in Northern Ireland — double what is spent in England and Wales,’ he said.
The chairman of the Bar Council, Andrew Langdon QC, said: ‘Many people have been denied justice since the introduction of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act which removed access to legal aid and therefore access to our justice system.
‘We’ve also seen successive governments in recent years instil a culture of austerity across Whitehall, resulting in a two-tier system of justice with the higher tier available only to those who can afford it.’
He said: ‘If funds are available after all, surely, the Ministry of Justice and the prime minister need to look again at the fall-out from LASPO and commit to the review of the Act’s impact on families and individuals seeking justice, which the previous government promised to carry out’.
A spokesperson for the Law Society said that this issue was not something that the body wanted to comment on.