A DEBATE on legal aid on Thursday morning ended with a call for action from the Government.
Carl Fender (Lincoln), introducing his private member’s motion, said that he did legal-aid work in some of the areas affected by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. The Christian faith spoke “generously” about the rule of law: “The importance of access to justice cannot be underestimated.” He said that this should be a priority for the Church.
Mr Fender gave three examples of legal-aid stories given to Amnesty International. He said: “Large groups of formerly eligible people now find themselves in permanent eclipse: most parents of children, workers, those in receipt of benefits, and those with immigration problems. The parameters of its spotlight are greatly diminished.”
He quoted Mark 6, saying that “people matter.” The new legal-aid rules had a “theory of self-interest that increasingly makes the individual the economic determiner, and the beginning and the end, of any legal redress”.
The Revd Fiona Gibson (St Albans) said that there was a link between the legal-aid debate and the treatment of survivors of sexual abuse, which had been debated the previous day. She said that survivors must rely on lawyers who worked on a “no-win, no-fee” system. Under the current system, survivors and victims were worse off than they had been, Ms Gibson said.
The Dean of the Arches, the Rt Worshipful Charles George QC, said that it was impossible for people to gain legal aid for private family legal cases, which outstripped civil cases. He quoted the former head of the Family Division, who said that anyone who thought that the country had a functioning network of courts was deluded. He said that part of the problem was budget cuts, one of the many victims of “ill-judged austerity”. He supported the motion.
Carolyn Johnson (Blackburn) said that she was a family-law barrister who did only legal-aid work. She said that legal aid was needed for preliminary help, which would decrease a huge amount of court time, and emotional distress. Separating Parents Information Programmes were run in Blackburn, she said, which should be replicated. She asked all churches to look at providing courses.
The Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Andrew Watson, told of a boy who had died in a gas accident several years earlier, whose parents were demanding a public inquiry into the precise causes of the tragedy. He denounced the “scandalous” absence of legal aid in coroner’s inquests, and said that he wholeheartedly supported the motion.
Stephen Hofmeyr (Guildford) said that, as a part-time judge who presided over criminal trials as a Recorder, he had had direct experience of the new legal-aid system, which had dramatically hindered justice. The poor and those with other specific difficulties, such as language barriers, were hit hardest by the reforms. No or inadequate legal representation was unjust and contradicted the character of God, he argued.
The Bishop of Southwark, Dr Christopher Chessun, argued that the reforms to legal aid had been detrimental across the country: in particular, in the family courts. Parents were even giving up on custody cases because of a lack of finance. There was a “pressing need” for a new consensus around the legal-aid crisis, and the Synod debate could make a telling contribution to this.
Mr Fender thanked members for the support and encouragement that he had received in pursuing this issue. He said that the Government was unwilling to have a proper debate about provision for legal representation.
After a point of order, the chair called for a counted vote of the whole Synod. The motion was carried by 218 votes nem. con, with one recorded abstention.
That this Synod, mindful that a justice system should be open and free from barriers of any kind, and also provide easy access to enable the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people in our society to seek professional help in bringing their claims before our courts and tribunals;
(a) recognise our legal aid system as an essential public service and fully endorse its preservation for the benefit of the nation;
(b) welcome the reports by Amnesty International and the Bach Commission about the impact of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 and note both their findings about its impact on the most vulnerable and disadvantaged groups in our society and their recommendations for reform of the current system; and
(c) call on Her Majesty’s Government to respond positively to these reports and explore ways of alleviating the impact that the 2012 Act has had on these groups.