Parts of the policy agenda – such as welfare reform, education policy, or the privatisation of NHS delivery – have attracted plenty of media attention, although they have not encountered anywhere near the level of informed critical scrutiny they needed. Other parts of the Coalition’s policy agenda have been moving forward relatively unnoticed, except among those directly affected.
Most notably, Chris Grayling’s single-minded and boneheaded attempt to destroy the English legal system as we know it has been progressing without attracting a huge amount of attention beyond legal circles. We have seen the House of Commons wave through a series of profound changes that are undermining key principles of our justice system. It is so egregious that it can only be intentional.
These changes have been “justified” with the Coalition’s characteristically cavalier approach towards evidence. That is, they have imagined some large numbers, shouted “austerity”, and argued that these large numbers justify cutting funding to support access to justice. This strategy has so far proven almost entirely impervious to reasoned argument. It doesn’t matter how many times informed commentators have pointed out that the Coalition’s case is misleading and its proposals damaging, the Lord Chancellor remains pretty much unmoved. He continues to pursue his anti-access agenda.
The magnitude of the ignorance of those who voted this agenda into law is perhaps well illustrated by complaints last week about Nigel Evans having to pay costs, having been found not guilty of rape. Were the Tory MPs complaining about this situation not party to the vote in the House that passed the provisions removing the right to costs in such situations? Indeed, I believe Nigel Evans chaired that debate. But somehow those supporting the changes didn’t appear to grasp the implications of what they were voting for.
Yet, it is not as if the problematic nature of Grayling’s proposals, and the negative social impacts they would bring in their wake, were not spelt out clearly from the outset. Nowhere has that been clearer than among legal bloggers, who have been scrutinising the proposals since they first emerged. Patrick Torsney has now performed a great service in bringing together the thoughts of more than 50 bloggers in Saving Justice – which is available for free on iBooks and other platforms. Some are blogs I was already familiar with – Head of Legal, A Dragon’s Best Friend, Charon QC, The Intrigant – but many are bloggers I’d not come across before.
Using forensic analysis of the evidence, case studies, arguments from principle, and satire the bloggers have provided a host of reasons why Grayling’s proposals are wrongheaded. Saving Justice also includes a range of audio and video extracts capturing a range of critical perspectives on the Coalition’s proposals. If this isn’t an area you are familiar with then I would heartily recommend downloading Saving Justice to get up to speed with what the issues are and what we’re in the process of losing. Indeed, even if you are already familiar with much of the story so far there is likely to be material here that is new to you and will be thought-provoking.*
We are now beginning to see some of the predictable consequences of Grayling’s agenda. Inefficiency, injustice and avoidable distress would be one way to summarise the situation. For example, one of the tabloids today reports on the case of a woman who was cross-examined in court by her ex-partner, who she had accused of raping her, because her partner had twice been refused legal aid and was defending himself. As if the situation weren’t distressing enough already.
They may have been relatively low profile up until now, but over time the Coalition’s reforms to the legal system will, I anticipate, come to be seen as one of its most pernicious policies and lasting legacies. In a bid to save small change the Government has succeeded in striking at one of the pillars of our social order. But no one can ever say that we weren’t warned.
* To declare an interest: Saving Justice contains one of my blogposts. This blog very occasionally discusses ‘legal’ issues, but I am no sort of legal blogger. I was therefore a bit surprised when it was proposed my post be included. But I was very happy for it to be there in amongst the real lawyers. The main point of my post in Saving Justice is that these are issues too important to be left to lawyers alone – they potentially affect everyone and so everyone should be concerned. The problem is that the issues are too remote from most people’s everyday experience, right up to the point when they need help and discover that it is no longer there, and the systemic consequences of the changes are even harder to grapple with.