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Injustice matters

04 April 2014

THERE were pickets outside probation offices and a march on Westminster this week, as solicitors and probation officers argued against cuts to the legal-aid system and the privatisation of 70 per cent of the Probation Service. The National Association of Probation Officers argues that the supervision of ex-offenders will suffer. An internal assessment last year warned that the risk of "an unacceptable drop in operational performance" was more than 80 per cent.

The Bishop of Newcastle, speaking in the Lords last May, listed some of the concerns about the Government's proposals: "the fragmentation of services, the risks of perverse incentives to providers, the question of how best practice is to be shared and developed", and "the question of how good communication between all parts of the system can be established". He was also worried about the speed of change, and "the greater danger of dissipating the accumulated wisdom and expertise of existing probation teams and services". The dismantling of the Probation Service, he said, would be "a tragic mistake".

The Government's objective is to save £215 million, and restrictions in legal aid have already started biting. Last week, Imran Khan, the solicitor who acted for Stephen Lawrence's family, said: "If the Lawrence case landed on my desk today, I wouldn't be able to take it." The pinch is already being felt in the family courts, subject to earlier restrictions. The proportion of those represented by a solicitor has dropped from 42 per cent before the changes to just 18 per cent today. Legal aid can now be accessed only by those who have suffered domestic abuse, or by those whose children are under threat. But the new system seems to invite miscarriages of justice. Even to apply for legal aid, a domestic-violence victim (assuming she made it to the Ministry of Justice website) is told: "You will need to know the court where your ex-partner was sentenced. You can either write to court or visit them in person. Sometimes a case is heard in a magistrates' court but sentenced in the Crown Court. The magistrates' court should be able to tell you where the sentencing took place. If you do not know the court, you could ask the police officer who was leading the investigation. . . You may have to pay a fee for the copy of the record." (The original is longer.)

Protests at the Government's reforms have been represented in some quarters as protectionism by people who have got used to being paid too much. But evidence is emerging that people who need legal help are not able to get it. Savings in the legal bill are thus likely to lead to the cost of family breakdown running into the next generation. The answer to an overstretched justice system is not to court greater injustice.

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