EXCLUSIVE: Ben Gummer puts his case for Legal Aid changes

A guest article by Ben Gummer MP

A couple of months ago I penned an article for the Times which criticized the Law Society and Bar Council for their failure to make a constructive response to the government’s proposed reform of Legal Aid and the fact that in doing so they had let down many of their publicly-paid members, who go into the law for the best of reasons and are often poorly paid for their considerable efforts.

If nothing else, the article caused considerable debate. Needless to say I won’t be getting an invitation to the Law Society’s Christmas party; but I also received many emails and comments from lawyers who agreed whole-heartedly with what I had said. I have not made many public comments since but I took the criticism from Ipswich Spy seriously and also from those that made comments, including Cllr Ken Bates, whom I respect.

I am one of the few non-lawyers on the Justice Select Committee, to which I sought election because of my interest in penal reform. It is a privilege to serve on a select committee and it is one of the very few areas where a backbencher can influence legislation on behalf of constituents. So I threw myself into its work, including those parts – like our detailed examination of the government’s proposals on Legal Aid – with which I was less familiar.

I was shocked by what I learned: by the inequalities, the appalling wastefulness and the sheer counter-productivity of the current system. Let me give some salient examples: we put more divorces and child custody disputes through an adversarial conclusion in the courts than any of our European neighbours, where the use of mediation is far more widespread and enjoys respect. People on zero incomes are afforded the ability to litigate in a manner that those on low and modest incomes would not qualify nor ever dream of embarking upon. Worse than that, we force too many families through contentious proceedings at a personal cost that many of us knows, I am sure, only too well.

The government’s response to this is simple: to protect Legal Aid to people at threat of losing their liberty, their home or their children, and family cases where there is domestic violence; for private family cases to switch funding to mediation, as is done in Sweden and Germany; to implement the proposals of Lord Justice Jackson, commissioned by the last government, into civil litigation; and finally to provide a safety net for those people whose civil claim is good but whose means are poor, yet are unable to find a lawyer on a “no win, no fee” basis.

The proposals are not perfect. My committee’s report, in which I made a considerable contribution, made a number of recommendations some of which have been adopted by the government. Sitting in the Public Bill Committee, which scrutinizes the legislation line by line between Second and Third Reading, I have achieved a small but important concession on domestic violence. I hope and expect there will be further changes that reflect my and my colleagues’ remaining concerns.

Of course, it is true that all of this is being done in the context of making sure our country does not go bankrupt. Legal Aid is seeing a 16% cut – far less than some other departments and a good deal better, I would bet, than had the Darling Plan taken flight. It is fair to say that if these savings are not made, then the money would have to come from somewhere else – be it railways, schools, defence or the NHS. These are genuinely tough decisions, careful balancing acts that we know we will never get precisely right. But they must be made, for if not then either I or someone else will be coming back in four years time asking for more cuts and more of your money in return.

Finally, I want to say something about what I have learnt about the legislative process in doing all of this. Select Committees work well and do much good on constituents’ behalf. But the Public Bill Committee stage is easily reduced to a farce. For instance, we were all forced to listen, at considerable length, to the shadow minister reciting for hours at a time the submissions of various interest groups – submissions that we had read already and I had heard at least twice before. It was not a debate; it was an attempt to filibuster the proceedings. Unsurprisingly, at points like these members on both sides do paperwork to squeeze some use out of what would otherwise be wasted time. And no, I was not – as the shadow minister claimed – reading The Economist, even though it would have been more helpful than listening to arguments already put far better, more cogently and certainly with greater concision by others before him.

There have been some thought-provoking and gracious interventions made by other Labour members. Kate Green, has made far more persuasive contributions than the shadow minister: she is certainly one to watch. Karl Turner looks like he will bring about a change in the law in cases of negligent driving, through dogged but civilized parliamentary campaigning. And Helen Goodman, the shadow minister for prisons, has provoked some genuinely exceptional debates on later parts of the Bill – on sentencing and prisons – that saw the minds of members on both sides of the chamber change and change again. So your parliament can work, but only when it wants.

This reform to Legal Aid is necessary not only for reasons of deficit reduction but also for equity. It will usher in a more humane system of family dispute resolution based on best practice in countries with better records in this sphere than ours. And it is being improved by the scrutiny that we are giving it and will be more so, I am sure, in the months to come. It is a privilege to be part of that process, representing the people of Ipswich in these important debates.

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12 Responses

  1. In the article Mr Gummer states that legal aid will still be available as a “safety net” in civil cases for people unable to secure a no win no fee lawyer if the claim is good but there means is poor.will this include medical negligence.I understand that a medical charity has called for a judicial review as they say a majority of cases including when babies have been left brain damaged by poor obstetrics would be rejected by no win no fee solicitors as to complex and risky.so there is a fear of people in this category slipping though the safety net and denied compensation.even the NHS litigation authority which deals with negligence claims against the NHS have said that the changes would exclude the neediest victims and increase rather than decrease expenditure.speaking as someone who thankfully did not need mediation or the courts when my child’s custody issue came up.but I have friends and colleagues who have not been so lucky and unfortunately when the other party is not being reasonable its very hard for mediation to work and it does fall to the courts.

  2. I would like Mr Gummer to explain what he means when he says:

    “People on zero incomes are afforded the ability to litigate in a manner that those on low and modest incomes would not qualify nor ever dream of embarking upon”

    Could Mr Gummer provide some examples please, and what exactly in the legal aid proposals will provide a remedy? As a member of the Select Committee, I am sure he will appreciate the importance of avoiding vague innuendo and backing up statements like that

    It’s all very well seeking to demonise people with “zero income”, but in my (extensive) experience the only reason such people would be seeking publicly funded advice is precisely because they have “zero income” eg Jack, unfairly dismissed from work with no money to buy food for his young family; Sally, street homeless and forced into prostitution after being unable to cope with her mounting debts and relationship breakdown; Tom, a former soldier disabled in fighting in Afghanistan (and discharged on that basis) refused disability benefits because a private sector company assessing claims on behalf of the DWP decides he is not actually disabled

    I can give you example after example of real people who were in the unfortunate position of needing legal aid to deal with real problems facing them and their families. Given the current cuts regime, the need is only going to increase and there will be many more examples around the country, including in Ipswich

    Despite Mr Gummer’s rhetoric and his point that legal aid is only suffering a 16% cut, what he fails to mention is that this cut is not spread evenly across legal aid provision. He omits, for example, the point that the areas of law that will bear the brunt of the cuts will in fact be what is generally termed Social Welfare Law; a group of legal areas including Debt cases (75% cut), Employment cases (100% cut), Housing cases (36% cut), Welfare Benefits cases (100% cut). And let’s not forget Education cases (97% cut) and Consumer cases (100% cut) to name but a few others

    Legal aid is being removed from the people who need it the most. It’s being removed from the very people it was set up to assist. It is shameful that the hallmark of a civilised society – justice for all – is being turned into justice for some, only those with enough money to afford it – people like Mr Gummer

    • In addition to the very accurate comments of Patrick – I must add that the most distressing point is that these cuts are taking place at the same time as complex benefit changes. This I feel is utterly outragious – the people who will be adversley and possibly unfairly affected by the benefit changes will not be able to gain access to legal advice to address their issues. These are people who are often unable to understand what is being asked or the repercussions of their lack of action. The very people we as a society have a moral duty to protect.

  3. I, for one, support Patrick’s comments and would add immigration to the list. Not a vote winner, admittedly, but a vulnerable group of people who have to suffer poor decisions by an under trained and understaffed UK Border Agency whose decisions are demonstrably poor. Just look at the percentages of decisions overturned at tribunal. If this government gets its way these people will be expected to work out which application is right for their circumstances by ploughing through the poorly designed and misleading UKBA website and gamble the extortionate fee in the hope of success. Should they wish to challenge a decision they will probably have to self-litigate (unless they are rich) which will cost the tribunal service, the MOJ and government a fortune; probably bringing the service to its knees. A false economy that contravenes article 6, ECHR.

  4. “I have achieved a small but important concession on domestic violence.”

    Is it true that this concession was down solely to you? Or did you vote for it based on someone’s else’s tabled amendment?

    • http://www.whec.org.uk/wordpress/?p=765

      We understand from a number of organisations that Mr Gummer did indeed lobby very hard for this concession on domestic violence. In situations like this it is unusual for one person to be entirely responsible for the way the law was developed, but Mr Gummer can claim to have worked very hard on this.

  5. to protect Legal Aid to people at threat of losing … their children

    You seem to be using “protect” to mean “not abolish” which, might I suggest, is an unusual and potentially misleading use of the word. In the area of Child Care Law the most recent cuts come against a background of a long series of previous cuts which have had the effect that fewer people are getting the help that even you seem to accept is vital. There has been a systematic de-skilling of the pool of representatives not because they have gone off in search of a deeper trough but because they simply cannot make practice pay. The effect is expose the most vulnerable to great risk. That would be shameful enough, but to try and pass yourself off as “protecting” legal aid provision when it is being cut is worse.

  6. “I was shocked by what I learned: by the inequalities, the appalling wastefulness and the sheer counter-productivity of the current system.”

    Would Mr. Gummer care to elaborate on this appalling wastefulness in greater detail and will he confirm that an estimated 42% of this type of issue is thought to be as a direct result of administrative and procedural errors made by government departments and local authorities? If this is the case then government departments becoming competent at their work should ease the burden significantly and mean that there is no clearly justifiable reason to massacre legal aid in the manner of the currently proposed reforms.

    When discussing “the inequalities, the appalling wastefulness and the sheer counter-productivity of the current system,” Mr Gummer makes specific reference to the fact that people with zero incomes are able to litigate. I would like him to explain what, exactly, he believes is wrong with this and whether it would be correct to assume that his unfounded attack on those worse off than himself is borne out of prejudice? Or whether it is simply ignorance?

  7. “People with zero incomes are able to litigate.” So are millionaires able to litigate and organisations with access to funding! Are they to be criticised? Or is it only the poor being criticised again?

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  9. [...] the Government is taking over fair access to justice. Mr Gummer has been kind enough to grant us his response to the articles we have written. We had intended to leave it at that. However the intervention by Left Foot Forward and its [...]

  10. [...] meetings with ministers. You may disagree with the aims of the bill, which we have discussed here before, but given that these three changes were amongst the most significant alterations to the [...]

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