An emergency motion criticising the government’s legal aid policy has been overwhelmingly passed at the Liberal Democrat party conference in Glasgow, writes Mary-Rachel McCabe.
The motion, which was proposed by the LibDem Lawyers Association, called for Grayling’s Transforming Legal Aid proposals ‘to be stayed pending thorough consultation and scrutiny to ensure there will be no adverse effect upon access to justice, the availability of local justice…and the quality of legal services provided to those who cannot afford to pay privately.’
The vote in favour of the motion followed the publishing of a letter in Wednesday’s Guardian which urged the Lib Dems to oppose justice secretary Chris Grayling’s ‘plans to restrict access to the courts by slashing legal aid and preventing organisations from bringing cases on behalf of others.’ The letter’s signatories – including the Justice Alliance, Legal Aid Practitioners’ Group, Unite the union, Liberty and many other unions and organisations – had warned the Liberal Democrats that Grayling’s proposals ‘will deny access to legal aid for foreign nationals in immigration detention and prison’ who may be subject to abuse, as has allegedly been the case at Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre.
The motion, which was endorsed by all but a few Liberal Democrats at the party conference, noted that ‘the provision of a high quality justice system and proper access to justice are fundamental obligations for a modern democratic state.’ It criticised price-competitive tendering (PCT) as an ‘unsustainable model’ and acknowledged the futility of Grayling’s u-turn on this proposal ‘in light of proposed fee cuts of 17 per cent’. This alternative proposal, said the motion, poses an equally ‘fundamental risk to the sustainability of the supplier base’.
The minister of state for justice, Lord McNally (pictured above) told the conference that the government was ‘in consultation’ about the proposed changes to legal aid and that ‘we have listened’. ‘That consultation will continue,’ said the minister in charge of legal aid reform.
‘I have been a life-long supporter of legal aid … but what is the limit of legal aid has been in debate for more than a decade now and as a minister responsible for the legal aid agency, I have a duty and a responsibility on how £1.9 billion of taxpayers’ money is spent.’
The Liberal Democrat concluded: ‘We are entitled to ask the whole system to look at efficiencies to make sure we can get maximum impact from what at the end of this exercise will probably still be the most generous legal aid system in the world at about £1.5bn.’
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