The full version of this interview with Sadiq Khan will appear on www.thejusticegap.com
‘I’m not going to fall into the trap of saying there is a Get Out of Jail Free card if the legal aid cuts go through,’ says shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan. ‘Because I want citizens, lawyers, judges, campaigners, NGOs and politicians to keep campaigning against the cuts Grayling has been making….I honestly think we can win this campaign.’
Speaking on the eve of the government’s long-awaited Transforming Legal Aid announcement last week, the shadow justice secretary voiced his fear that – if Grayling’s planned further cuts are implemented – the landscape he will inherit if Labour are elected in 2015 ‘will be the most depressing there has been for a new Lord Chancellor in my lifetime.’
A former human rights solicitor, Khan is highly critical of the ‘draconian’ and ‘savage’ cuts that Chris Grayling and his predecessor Ken Clarke have made to legal aid, describing Grayling’s actions as those of ‘the most legally illiterate Lord Chancellor in the history of the office of Lord Chancellor.’
An unsustainable budget
More cuts will impede access to justice and force many local small firms to follow in the footsteps of the law centres and CABs which have already closed down since LASPO was implemented, according to the shadow justice secretary. ‘And any hope we have of making the judiciary or legal profession more diverse will be gone’, he says.
Khan told MPs in 2011 that the legal aid budget was ‘not sustainable, especially in the current economic context’. Does he stand by his assertion that Labour would also have announced cuts to the legal aid budget if they had been in power?
‘We’ve got to be honest with the British public,’ says Khan. ‘When Labour left office, the legal aid budget was £2.1billion out of an overall MoJ budget of £8.5billion. That’s a lot of money.’
He adds: ‘There are savings to be made. What I wouldn’t do is slash £350m from the civil legal aid budget in LASPO, and then another £220m from crime like Grayling’s doing now.’
A simplistic approach
So what would he have done? ‘There are other ways of saving money,’ says Khan. ‘You can look at the inefficiencies in the justice system – cracked trials, aborted civil actions, the amount of time wasted because witnesses are sitting around, time wasted because of a failure to disclose papers from the CPS or interpreters not turning up, last-minute guilty pleas.’
He adds that the approach of Grayling and his predecessor has been too ‘simplistic’, that the cuts to social welfare law introduced by LASPO have created ‘advice deserts’ and that they are a false economy. ‘There was independent research which showed that if you spent a pound giving someone housing advice, you save £7 down the road,’ he says.
‘So we made the point to the government that this is a false economy. Although you might be saving money in the MoJ silo, down the road, the taxpayers pay more money – but there’s also huge human misery as well.’
Despite Khan’s opposition to Grayling’s cuts, he won’t promise to reverse them if Labour are elected in 2015.
‘It’s not as simple as that,’ he says. ‘That’s the sort of thing that lawyers who are angry – but naive – say. The legal aid budget in 2015 will have dropped by £2billion to £6.5billion. There just isn’t the money there to restore the cuts made in LASPO, or in the criminal stuff.’
Instead, Khan wants to take a ‘multi-layered’ approach to ‘retaining access to justice’ if he becomes the next justice secretary.
He wants to look at how to use technology to assist people with their legal problems. ‘But you’ve then got to think about those people who need a human being, who can’t rely on IT,’ he says. ‘You’ve also got to think about those areas where there’s advocacy involved – crime and family being good examples – and then you’ve got to protect those areas.’
A bleak landscape
Khan adds that much will depend on what the landscape is like in 2015. ‘There were 1400 legal aid practitioners a year ago and the government wanted to reduce that to 400,’ he says.
‘There were CABs and law centres open in 2011 and 2012 that have now closed down. Buildings have been sold off and advisers have now left the profession. If you were to reinstate the money, where would the premises and practitioners come from?’
The Low Commission on the Future of Advice and Legal Support has called for an extra £100m-a-year to ensure a ‘basic level of provision’ in social welfare law – half coming from central government and the other half from other sources, including via a levy on payday loan companies. The Low Commission has also called for the restoration of legal aid for housing law so people can get help before they face imminent eviction. Would this be something a Labour justice secretary would consider in 2015?
‘Yes but not simply limited to that,’ says Khan. ‘Low addresses today’s problems – i.e. that a lot of people aren’t getting advice in social welfare law. We also need to ensure people are getting good quality criminal law advice.’
A viable legal aid system
There are ‘a number of examples out there which are ambitious and exciting and not simply about turning the tap back on,’ according to Khan. ‘Which isn’t possible anyway,’ he hastens to add.
Refusing to budge on any pledge to reverse the cuts, Khan concludes: ‘I’m already working with a number of groups and individuals to discuss what sort of offer I’d be able to make after 7th May 2015 so that we’ve got a legal aid system that is viable and that gives people access to justice.’
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