Roger Smith: ‘We may be poorer but we must be smarter’

In a retort to Lord McNally’s recent exhortation to legal aid lawyers to ‘move on from LASPO’, the outgoing director of JUSTICE Roger Smith called for ‘radical change’.

Roger Smith, who will be replaced by Andrea Coomber as of February 2013, gave his lecture on Tuesday – entitled ‘After LASPO: what future for legal aid?’ – delivered what he called an extended riposte to McNally, the new justice minister. Coomber is currently legal director of the international human rights organisation, INTERIGHTS.

‘Lord McNally is fed up with people still whingeing about cuts that are, as far as ministers are concerned, done and dusted,’ said Smith, who joined JUSTICE as director in 2001. ‘…The coalition’s cuts have, understandably, been presented and understood as about the saving of money. However, for legal aid as elsewhere, cuts of the magnitude projected pose a challenge for government way beyond the financial. They are so deep that they open up fundamental questions of purpose.’

  •  ‘If you think you can re-run the LASPO-debate, I think you are going to go down a cul-de-sac.’ Lord McNally to last week’s LAPG conference HERE.
  • You can download Roger Smith’s speech in full Roger Smith speech (PDF).

Smith’s thesis was that the LASPO cuts required ‘radical change’. ‘They slice so hard into the heart of legal aid that we are forced to reconceptualise the objective of policy,’ he said. ‘They are a repudiation of the bipartisan development of legal aid that has extended through my working lifetime. All major political parties and all governments operated on the premise that the poor were entitled to, and would progressively receive, legal services available to the rich.’

Still work to be done
Smith, who began his career at Camden Law Centre in 1973, took issue with Lord McNally. ‘We cannot move on in the way that he wants – in part, because the government has not fully appreciated what it has done,’ he told an audience at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer.

‘The LASPO cuts essentially reduce legal aid policy to one aim: the delivery of the lowest level of service that will comply with our minimum obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights at the least possible cost.’

The European Convention was ‘a marvellous document but it amounts to a necessary but not sufficient element of our constitutional framework’, the lawyer said; adding that ‘such a reductionist approach’ was ‘surely unacceptable’. ‘Lord McNally, as the legal aid minister, has much more work to do in order to make sense of his package of cuts.’

A way forward
Smith called on access to justice campaigners to develop a set of policies ‘that we can advance to any political party that wants to devise a coherent justice strategy’. If campaigners could not find a defence of legal aid expenditure, then the future was ‘decline by an unending series of salami slices’.

He outlined six steps to his argument:

  • The current model of seeing legal aid as stand-alone provision was ‘unsustainable’;
  • There was a need to ‘reconceive the objective of our justice policy as a whole’ (‘… the objective and ideal should be that we deliver equal justice to all…’);
  • Legal aid needs to be ‘reconceived as only one of a set of linked policies and provision – including reform of substantive law, methods of adjudication, the provision of non-legal assistance’;
  • Such ‘an access to justice approach builds up from the availability of information and ends with the funding of lawyers – not the other way round’;
  • There was a need to ‘maximise the benefit of the information revolution through which we are currently going and foster innovation’; and
  • To ‘deliver equal justice, we need one government department and one budget’.

Smith argued that there was ‘some considerable doubt’ as to whether the LASPO cuts would deliver the promised savings. In particular, he said: ‘An increase in imprisonment would be likely lead to greater defence costs. An increase in domestic violence will scupper the family law savings but is almost unavoidable. Reported domestic violence will rocket as lawyers seize on what is required to make a successful legal aid application and clients have reduced incentive not to pursue allegations of violence by former partners.’ The cuts to social welfare law were ‘surely too complicated to be sustainable’, he added.

Don’t begin with the lawyer
Any future model of publicly-funded law needed to be built ‘from the bottom up’. ‘We should not begin with the lawyer: we should begin with the person who has a problem,’ he said.  ‘Logically, consideration of how people might get equal justice begins with how they might know what their position is, not how they get a lawyer. We need to look at basic sources of information. We are in the midst of an information revolution. How can we use the Internet?’

‘Cuts of the level that we are now experiencing mean that we have to reconceptualise public services. We may be poorer but we must be smarter.’

About Jon Robins

Jon is a journalist and has written about the law and justice for the national papers and specialist press for more than 15 years. Jon is a visiting journalism lecturer at Winchester University, a visiting senior fellow in access to justice at the University of Lincoln and patron of Hackney Community Law Centre. He has won the Bar Council’s legal reporter of the year award twice (2015 and 2005). Jon is editor and co-founder of LegalVoice

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *