The law presents some inconvenient obstacles to the coalition’s series of assaults on the poor. The government is meeting the threat in two ways. When it has no option, it removes legislation that requires it to act as though fairness were more than an advertising slogan. So Harriet Harman’s Equality Act is to be repealed. Much better from the coalition’s point of view, however, is to preserve the form of the law while making sure the poor have no chance to use it.
This is where the cuts on legal aid fit. Gone will be support against grasping private landlords, debt sharks, schools that fail their most vulnerable pupils, dismissal-happy employers and much else besides in the fields of welfare, negligence and family law. David Cameron will still be able to lecture the Chinese on ‘the merits of the rule of law’ and the Lib Dems – that rest home for hobbyist lawyer-politicians – will not feel obliged to kick up a fuss. But the legal system will be open to all only in the way that the recently restored Savoy is.
The proposals leave one opening. There are no cuts in legal aid funding for judicial reviews: cases in which the legality of government action is challenged. And while the Equality Act may soon be gone, the Human Rights Act is not (yet) scheduled for the chop, and it contains much that may prove useful in resisting the coalition’s attack on the poor. There is no human right to legal aid but impoverishment can be ‘inhumane treatment’ and so barred by the act when it is brought about by deliberate government action. Forced labour in exchange for benefits may also be hard to justify under human rights law. As a result of a recent Supreme Court decision, many evictions by local authorities will in future need to be preceded by a full discussion in court of the extent to which the move infringes the victims’ right to family life and privacy. And many benefits cannot be taken away without some kind of fair hearing – this too is the result of the Human Rights Act.
The government may not have thought about all of this. But these will all be judicial review cases and so can be funded. Expect plenty of Tory anger about solicitors in BMWs and high-handed judicial meddling as the lawyers whose livelihoods have been threatened by the loss of their usual business swoop in on judicial review as a potential life line. And there’s no doubt that the coalition’s spending cuts will give them lots of work.