The Lord Chancellor is not the only member of the government’s justice team that deserves the scorn of the legal profession

Did you wake this morning bleary eyed and with a mouth that felt like it was full of cotton wool? Was your head pounding to the beat of a snare drum as your stomach churned at the smell of breakfast cooking on the kitchen stove? If so, then the likelihood is that you enjoyed yet another impressive St. Patrick’s Day.

I too am feeling a little green around the gills this morning, but it is not because of an over indulgence in that velvety black elixir we all feel obliged to drink this time of year (that’s Guinness for all you teetotallers out there). The reason I feel a tad queasy is because I had the misfortune of sitting through the last House of Commons Justice Questions before the upcoming election.

Last week, the Justice Select Committee concluded that government cuts in eligibility for civil legal aid had significantly impacted on some of the most vulnerable in society and had not achieved value for money for the taxpayer. For those practitioners working at the coal face of the justice system, the committee’s report provided few surprises; we all know it is bad out there.

So, with the committee’s damning indictment of LASPO still hot off the presses, the stage was set for some pretty awkward questions to be thrown at the Lord Chancellor and his ministers at the despatch box. And while those questions did indeed come, the government’s response to clear evidence that its swingeing cuts to legal aid have restricted access to justice was enough for many to look on aghast in shock, if not awe.

One might have thought the official Ministry of Justice (MoJ) statement was bad enough after a spokesperson said it was ‘entirely untrue’ to allege people eligible for legal aid did not get it. But that was nothing compared with what parliament was told by the government’s (in)justice team this week.

The committee’s report found that the exceptional cases funding scheme, which was supposed to act as a ‘safety net’, had not worked as parliament intended. The MoJ had apparently estimated 5,000 to 7,000 applications for exceptional funding would be made each year, and would expect 3,700 to be granted. Yet figures from the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) showed that only 151 of the 2,090 applications made between April 2013 and September 2014 were approved.

Despite these troubling statistics, justice minister Shailesh Vara told a sparsely attended commons: ‘As far as exceptional funding is concerned, the giveaway is in the title. The fund is meant to be exceptional, but some people have seen it as a discretionary fund. Not surprisingly, therefore, the numbers involved in it have been few.’

Asked whether the MoJ had evidence that there had been a rise in litigants in person following the implementation of LASPO, Vara said he believed that there had been an increase but ‘the government had made a huge provision to cater for that’, before trotting out the now worn out line about a legal aid system needing to be sustainable for the taxpayer.

This is the same Shailesh Vara, a former City solicitor, who was caught up in the MPs expenses scandal in 2009.

The minister then went on to claim the government’s reforms were aimed at creating a justice system that was ‘more accessible to the public’ and ‘did not need the input of lawyers’.

Pushed further on the commission’s conclusions, Vara appeared to lose his composure and blamed the previous Labour government for forcing the coalition to make the cuts it did, before then trotting out the usual ‘we still have the most generous legal aid system in the world’ soundbite. No surprise there then.

But  I was surprised when the minister chose to completely ignore a question from Sadiq Khan about whether the government would agree to review the impact of its reforms on women’s access to justice and recent rises in court and tribunal fees. Instead, Vara chose to attack the shadow front bench on the fact it had yet to confirm it would reverse the government’s cuts. Is it any wonder the public are apathetic about politics?

While LASPO was introduced by the previous Lord Chancellor, Ken Clarke, it is under Grayling’s watch that much of the damage has been done to our justice system. Shadow justice minister Andy Slaughter was therefore right to suggest that LASPO was an ‘abject figure’ and ‘a fitting epitaph for the least capable Lord Chancellor since the reformation’.

However, I would go further and say that while Grayling – as Lord Chancellor – should carry much of the blame; his underlings at the MoJ deserve equal scorn for following his orders. So in honour of St. Patrick’s Day might I suggest that the Rt Honourable Shailesh Vara is one particular snake that deserves whacking out of office come 7 May.

This blog post was first published in Solicitors Journal on 18 March 2015 and is reproduced with kind permission

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