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.