Continuing on the subject

by Alex Hern

So on Monday I mocked Americans for naively thinking that their justice system was blind to the wealth of those involved, but it’s worth remembering that we aren’t much better. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) bill that is in committee stage now will remove huge swaths of the legal system from the reach of those too poor to retain their own lawyer.

The current headline problem with it is the fact that it renders a small number of incredibly significant cases impossible to bring. Just two examples recently are the lawsuit on behalf of Ivoirians against Trafigura’s illegal dumping of toxic waste, and the lawsuit on behalf of the Dowlers against News of the World.

These cases were brought under the old type of Conditional Fee Agreement. Law firms take on the cases knowing that they’ll only get paid if they win, and the damages are awarded based on the claim at hand, and then costs are awarded on top. Under the new rules, they would instead have to pay for the proceedings out of the compensation they receive. Although this payment of costs is capped at 25% of the compensation, the issue isn’t so much that they won’t get the money (although that 25% can sometimes be devastating; someone who’s got damages equal to the cost of (say) the wheelchair they’ll need after an accident at work will find themselves having to pay for the final quarter of that chair themselves), it’s that no one will bother to represent them. Trafigura was (if I recall correctly) around £130m in legal costs for £35m in damages; under the new rules the lawyers would only have been paid £9m, less than one thirteenth of their actual costs. So they wouldn’t bother to take on the case in the first place.

The reason why this disproportionately affects international human-rights lawsuits like Trafigura is because the damages which are awarded in these cases are based on the value of the damage to those bringing them. So (for instance) if your house in Kensington is rendered uninhabitable by toxic waste, you can sue for £2m. If your house in Ghana is, you can sue for £2k. Same case, same legal costs, but a thousandfold less money in the pot from which lawyers are paid. Similarly, the damages awarded to the Dowlers are likely to be quite small relative to the cost of the case. Does this mean it shouldn’t have been brought? Absolutely not.

The legal aid bill is a piece of shit in so many ways. Amongst other fun things:

1. You can only get legal aid to divorce if domestic violence is involved – but the bill includes a completely new definition of domestic violence which requires more than one incident of physical or psychological violence to have occurred – and even if it is involved, you can’t get legal aid from it until the courts are involved, or a MARAC has been called. Even checking into a women’s refuge doesn’t count – because apparently women might do it just to get legal aid even if there was no violence.

2. Funding is being stripped from CABs and Law Centres. When it was pointed out that every £1 invested in a CAB saves up to £10 in costs elsewhere, Ben Gummer mocked the concept that one could save money by spending money, saying:

We return to this weird canard, which is hoisted by so many—[Interruption.] Yes, you do hoist a canard. It is hoisted many times in debates on public spending: “We are making cuts that will cost more money elsewhere.” It is a weird argument about public expenditure that somehow, if we spend more money, we will save it. On that basis, if we followed the Opposition’s line, we would be investing in so many areas of public policy that there would be no money left at the end to spend. Do they not understand the lunacy of the argument that we must spend money in order to save it? That is precisely the policy that they attempted to pursue over the last 13 years, and it has landed us where we are.

Clearly Gummer has never heard of such wild concepts as insurance, preventative care, loft insulation, and the like.

3. Legal aid has gone from being assumed available unless an area is specifically excluded, to assumed unavailable unless explicitly included. The list which contains the areas which are eligible can be modified by the lord chancellor without consultation, but only to remove areas. To add areas still requires a vote in parliament.

This shit has gone on long enough. It’s reaching write to your MP time, as Amnesty International and Sound Off for Justice agree. Either of those links will give you some way to help, and I urge you to do so as soon as possible, especially if your MP is one of the government members of the public bill committee. Named and shamed:

  • Blunt, Mr Crispin (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice)
  • Brake, Tom (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD)
  • Buckland, Mr Robert (South Swindon) (Con)
  • Crockart, Mike (Edinburgh West) (LD)
  • Djanogly, Mr Jonathan (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice)
  • Gummer, Ben (Ipswich) (Con)
  • Hinds, Damian (East Hampshire) (Con)
  • Lee, Jessica (Erewash) (Con)
  • Soubry, Anna (Broxtowe) (Con)
  • Truss, Elizabeth (South West Norfolk) (Con)
  • Wallace, Mr Ben (Wyre and Preston North) (Con)
  • Wright, Jeremy (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury)

Write to them, berate them, and don’t let them forget that people are literally going to die if this passes.