“From the very beginning, our state and national constitutions and laws have laid great emphasis on procedural and substantive safeguards designed to assure fair trials before impartial tribunals in which every defendant stands equal before the law. This noble ideal cannot be realized if the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him.”
JUSTICE HUGO L. BLACK
U.S. SUPREME COURT
Gideon v. Wainwright (1963)
On the 25th August 2011 our deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, said “I will refuse to let human rights laws be weakened” – but these words are meaningless if those who need to claim their human rights before a criminal or civil court of law have to do it themselves because they cannot get legal aid to pay for a lawyer. It is ironic that our prime minister, David Cameron, is now lecturing overseas countries on their human rights, threatening to link British aid to human rights issues, while at the same time presiding over a government which has reduced access to justice in our country through a desire to reduce spending on justice.
The Guardian notes: Liberal Democrat push to amend legal aid reforms provokes fury – “MPs accused of ‘trying to have their cake and eat’ it by voting against Labour amendments that had same effect as their own.”
Obiter J, writing on his Law and Lawyers blog notes: “Rights” without access to justice are not rights at all” and quotes Lord Pannick…
‘There are countries where the Government win all their cases in court – but they are not places in which any of us would wish to live.’ Well, buckle up people, because the legal aid bill before parliament is a last call to all passengers on a one-way ticket to just such a country.
This is an extract from an excellent article describing how the legal aid cuts will effectively remove access to justice from the vast majority of people. If you read nothing else, please read Justice Gap – Jules Carey - “What price liberty? Too much for legal aid.”
Obiter J then goes on to draw attention to a thoughtful piece by barrister Lucy Reed in her Pink Tape blog:
The Pink Tape blog looks at whether Judicial Training will ameliorate the problems caused by a surge in litigants-in-person. The answer is not encouraging and such litigants – usually ordinary people fighting for their rights – will often be facing the power of government with a bottomless purse and no restrictions on the lawyers they can hire to fight their corner. Litigants in person are at an enormous disadvantage. The law is difficult and it is, as Chief Justice Coke said many years ago in words aimed at King James I:
” … an art which requires long study and experience, before that a man can attain to the cognizance of it; …” Case of Prohibitions del Roy  EWHC J23 (KB); 77ER 1342; 12 Co rep 63.
It is utterly wrong to expect the ordinary citizen to represent themselves before courts and tribunals with their complex law and procedural rules. “Rights” without access to justice cannot be properly described as rights at all.
I leave you with this quotation: “All human beings, whatever their cultural or historical background, suffer when they are intimidated, imprisoned or tortured . . . We must, therefore, insist on a global consensus, not only on the need to respect human rights worldwide, but also on the definition of these rights . . . for it is the inherent nature of all human beings to yearn for freedom, equality and dignity, and they have an equal right to achieve that.”
No.. it was not prime minister David Cameron lecturing the Commonwealth leaders last week… it was the Dalai Lama who spoke these words. He has a point – and we will be all the poorer if we end up blithely talking about human rights and the rule of law – without the means to provide a decent rule of law to those who need it.
Our MPs appear not to understand that the relatively modest cost of legal aid – compared to the billions spent on wars and overseas aid – could be more important than these latter ‘cost centres’ to the well being of our country.