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Grahame Stowe: Rough justice – why I fear our legal system is in meltdown

Justice, it seems, comes at a price – and for the Government, the price is no longer affordable. What follows may shock those who were unaware of how serious the threat is to our justice system and the protection of our society.

Savage cuts to the legal aid budget are set to prompt the closure of Yorkshire law firms, many of which serve our most deprived communities. At the same time, no fewer than a dozen magistrates and county courts in Yorkshire are threatened with closure.

It is likely that soon, your postcode will determine whether you are able to access expert advice at all and whether you have to travel great distances to put your case. It is estimated that thousands of people may no longer have access to

the courts.

The erasure of courts and law firms will place even greater strain on the police and other agencies. Criminals, having offended, may escape prosecution for a serious crime or will be "under charged" – a violent mugging, for example, will be reduced to theft.

At the weekend, the chief inspector of the Crown Prosecution Service revealed the results of recent inspections, which showed that the wrong charges were pursued in up to one in five cases.

We are repeatedly warned that spending cuts in this climate are inevitable. However, the proposals to make further cuts to our justice system should concern us all. They will result in miscarriages of justice, not only for those who are wrongly imprisoned through lack of representation, but also for those who get away with it because there will no longer be the resources to bring them to justice.

For those who need legal aid, there can be no doubt that the impact will be anything other than severe: already, the number of law firms permitted to offer family law legal aid in Leeds has been slashed from 31 to eight.

Imagine: just eight firms offering family law legal aid in a city of more than 700,000 people. How will the city cope? What will the effect be on those desperate parents whose children are removed from them by a misguided social worker, perhaps never to see them again? Or the abused woman and her children made homeless by a violent partner?

Those who work in the legal aid sector know that over the last 10 years the qualifying criteria for legal aid has been progressively reduced, so that far fewer people are eligible for it.

As the criteria tightened, my firm began to offer pro bono advice to those who would have qualified 10 years ago. Make no mistake: there are no fat cat legal aid lawyers.

Our remuneration bears favourable comparison with your local plumbers, electricians and the like. To continue to serve the public, however, we have been obliged to jump through hoops for the last 10 years to meet the expensive, time-consuming and bureaucratic demands that have been remorselessly piled upon us. Now the screw is being turned still further.

When the Legal Services Commission reviewed the legal aid contracts for family law recently, it set illogical criteria that differed from town to town.

For many firms, the criteria could not be met within the absurdly short timescale that had been set. Whether it is the severe reduction in the number of Yorkshire firms subsequently contracted to provide family law on legal aid, or the LSC's bizarre restriction on firms offering more than one type of family law advice, the effect is a reduction of choice and quality. It will lead to some areas left without any firm specialising in certain areas of law.

Later this year, the legal aid contracts for criminal law will be reviewed. There is informed speculation among lawyers in the region that contracts will be awarded to just 10 firms in West Yorkshire, which, if true, is unimaginable. Law firms and barristers chambers will go out of business and the loss of service to the public will be incalculable.

Given that our overworked justice system is already creaking, and that Justice Secretary Ken Clarke is calling for lighter prison sentences, I fully expect to see greatly reduced numbers of prosecutions.

Regrettably, I can accept only too easily that large numbers of criminals are now avoiding the criminal justice system. They will continue to do so in even greater numbers if, as feared, there are fewer police officers, lawyers, courts and prosecutions. We will be told by slick politicians that crime figures are falling – when nothing will be further from the truth.

Our justice system is at the point of meltdown. The coalition would be wise to heed the concerns of those of us who speak in unison from the frontline. It should do away at once with these costly, box-ticking exercises that have been imposed upon all of us, and put us back to do our real work before it is too late.

The destruction of a justice system is the destruction of democracy

and brings devastation to us all in its wake.

Grahame Stowe is the senior partner at Grahame Stowe Bateson.

 
 
 

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