Austerity justice – and a vision of the future

REVIEW: Austerity Justice by Steve Hynes (Legal Action Group, 172pp £15).  Austerity Justice covers three related but separate topics: the history of legal aid; the progress of what became the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO); it ends with some thoughts on the future, writes Roger Smith.

The book marks the 40th anniversary of the Legal Action Group. I declare an interest. I wrote A Strategy for Justice at the time of LAG’s 20th.

The first third of the book is the best. It gives a clear and well researched account of how legal aid developed from the Poor Men’s Lawyers of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. They represented a powerful movement and might have influenced the formation of the legal aid scheme after the Second World War if the Law Society had not been such a powerful force. They were linked to the university settlements. Their influence can still be seen in the continuing success of  the Mary Ward Legal Centre. This is linked to a settlement established by – and named after – a successful novelist who also contributed to the formation of Oxford’s Somerville

The story of LASPO probably should be recorded for posterity But, in reality, the guts of it are quite short. In response to what it portrayed as a financial crisis, the coalition government drove through cuts to public expenditure. Legal aid stood no chance of escaping the general axe and only minor amendment was possible to the original proposal for cuts of around a quarter of the budget. The precisely difficult thing about lobbying in defence of legal aid was that the cuts were a byproduct of a wider economic and political strategy.

At one time, it looked as if we might have aircraft carriers or aircraft but not both: it could still happen In that kind of mad world, what chance did legal aid In that context, the book may have succumbed to too much detail. For example, the Law Society’s ‘sudden’ loss of its Head of Public Affairs Nicky Edwards may have blunted its initial response to the government’s proposals. I have worked at the Law Society: the phenomenon of the overnight disappearance has some precedent. However, I am not sure that the society could have done better even without this hindrance to its lobbying. Legal aid was going down the pan in any event.

The last section, including ‘a vision of the future’, would have been the hardest to write. Twenty years ago, you could have ideas about how legal aid could be improved within the existing budget. Now, the song that greeted Tony Blair’s election has to be reversed: things can only get worse. LAG has established a commission to examine the future of social welfare law. That was exactly the right thing to do. Whether it can redeem the damage charted so carefully in this book remains to be seen.


About Roger Smith

Roger is an expert in domestic and international aspects of legal aid, human rights and access to justice. Roger is a visiting professor of law at London South Bank University and an honorary professor at the University of Kent. He is a solicitor and has been director of the Legal Action Group, JUSTICE and West Hampstead Community Law Centre as well as director of policy and legal education at the Law Society, London, and solicitor to the Child Poverty Action Group. Roger was awarded an OBE in 2009 and received a lifetime achievement award from the Law Society in October 2012

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