Changes to legal aid rejected: will Grayling ever learn?

Justice Old Bailey

In an effort to cut costs Grayling's most recent proposals discriminate against the most vulnerable.

Proposals to introduce a residence test as a requirement for legal aid has been unanimously rejected at the high court this week. It is yet another setback for the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling, whose radical reform of the legal system has been so fiercely objected to by the legal community. The most recent proposals show yet again how Grayling is so focused on cutting spending at the expense of not only the function and objectives of the law but the vulnerable people who it serves to protect.

The proposals would make foreign nationals who could prove they have lived in the UK for over a year ineligible for legal aid. Three high court judges firmly rejected the proposals in a damming response to Grayling’s plans which he has already managed to push through the commons. The added criteria was being introduced as secondary legislation to the already highly controversial Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LAPSO) 2012. The high court ruled that Grayling would be acting beyond his powers to introduce the reforms in this way, he could not alter, add or omit from the list of people already eligible under the act if it was deemed to change its purpose or any of its main objectives. The proposals were therefore deemed unlawful and would need to be introduced by way of new primary legislation in order to be fully within Grayling’s powers.

However, it is doubtful whether these proposals, even being introduced as primary legislation, would ever be accepted as a result of their highly discriminate nature. The high court condemned the proposals on the grounds that it was not a legitimate aim to discriminate against foreign-nationals solely to save money. It is a concern of many UK human and civil right groups that children of foreign asylum seekers would be the ones most affected by these proposals. Quoted in the judges summaries was Lord Scarman’s famous words ‘he who is subject to English law is entitled to its protection.’ Equality must be ensured so that those who would ordinarily be entitled to legal aid are not dismissed simply because of their nationality. Barristers, judges and QC’s alike have stood up against the reform in what would be another cut to the already severely diminished legal aid which Grayling has continued to reduce. The commons approved the proposals by a margin of 70 votes when they voted last week, however, after this high court ruling it is unfathomable that the more rights-conscious Lords will approve the test when they come to vote next week.

What these proposals show is the government’s obsession with meeting targets and cutting costs without actually assessing the impact or damage that they might have. Grayling is a government minister working towards government goals, he has time and time again been seen to make cuts where room for injustice is increasingly widened. The proposals which were seen as prejudiced, unjustified, discriminate and unauthorised were resoundingly rejected by legal experts, however Grayling continued to stand by them. It shows his complete animosity towards the legal community which he is apparently representing in Parliament.

There is no doubt that savings need to be made to the cost of the legal sector. However, it is clear that in an effort to cut costs and meet targets Grayling is seriously jeopardising access to justice in this country. With his sights set on the 2015 general election he is looking for impressive statements of alleged savings for electoral gain rather than addressing any long term issues. The cost of the law in this country is a problem but not one that can be fixed by cramming jail cells, excluding the needy from aid and privatising large sections of the system. More work needs to be done to ensure proper rehabilitation programmes and lower reoffending rates rather working to entirely alienate the vulnerable people in so desperate need of the protection of the law.

Grayling’s recent proposals are discriminatory, unlawful and wholly unjustified. Hopefully the Lords will listen to this damming high court judgement and reject the proposals when they come to vote next week. However, this will only be a very small success against the onslaught of Grayling’s alleged ‘reform’. What this judgement has furthered to highlight is that in a rush to meet governmental targets and ensure electoral success Grayling is neglecting to safeguard the vulnerable people subject to, but not protected by, the English legal system.