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Baroness Hale attacks government's legal aid proposals

2011 Sir Henry Hodge Memorial Lecture addresses 'Equal Access to Justice in the Big Society’.

Baroness Hale of Richmond has criticised the government's proposals to cut legal aid. Lady Hale was delivering the 2011 Sir Henry Hodge Memorial Lecture at the Law Society entitled 'Equal Access to Justice in the Big Society'.

Referring to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, which passed its second reading in the House of Commons on the 29th June, Lady Hale said that the government's own equality impact statement accepts that the cuts will have a disproportionate impact upon women, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities.

She continued:

'[The government says] that this is justifiable because [such people] are disproportionate users of the service in these areas. This is an interesting argument about which I had better not say anything more, as it is bound to come before us in one shape or form in future.'

She then noted that the Legal Action Group fears 'that this would lead to an underclass of people disenfranchised from civil justice and indifferent to the rule of law'.

Describing incremental cuts to legal aid over the last decade, she said:

'This is being done by providing that certain sorts of case will remain within, and certain others will be removed from, the scope of legal aid, by which is meant all 'civil legal services', that is, all kinds of legal advice, assistance, mediation and representation. Cases which can have outcomes which the Government defines as serious, such as homelessness, domestic violence, loss of liberty, discrimination, human rights issues and abuse of power by the state, will remain in scope; while other kinds of housing case, debts, welfare benefits, employment, immigration, education, and most family breakdown will come out. But mediation in family disputes stays in.'

However, she commented:

'In real life, as we all know and research has shown, clients come with a variety of interlocking problems. Family breakdown can easily lead people into debt, if debts are not tackled early and in the right way, they can easily lead to homelessness. People need the right advice and they need it early, before things have escalated into court. The idea that the law in some of these areas is simple and easy to understand is laughable.'

To read Lady Hale's speech in full, please click here.