Not everyone in the Labour Party agrees with one another at the moment. You may have noticed. Here however, is an area for incontrovertible agreement and unity: justice. The Tories’ approach to our fundamental rights and liberties is deplorable, dehumanising and, frankly, unpatriotic. It deserves universal and vocal opposition.
Let’s start with that key pillar of Attlee’s welfare state, legal aid. Like our rights to healthcare and to education, the right to access justice is a basic in a civilised society. It’s about being able to enforce the rights that let you live your life: how you can maintain a roof over your head, your right not to face sexual or racial or disability discrimination at work, your ability to challenge a wrongful decision made against you.
Yet this government have withdrawn legal aid from employment tribunal cases, welfare claims, the great majority of family and housing cases, and they’ve put very substantial curbs on criminal legal aid. Even where legal aid is available in theory, the barriers to obtaining it are so high as to mean it’s sometimes not given. For example, to receive help with an abuse-related claim, you have to provide a letter evidencing the abuse, but a third of domestic violence victims are unable to provide the right evidence to qualify for assistance.
The result is that law centres and legal aid law firms have simply had to shut down, leaving little access to advice, let alone justice. Whilst this is disgraceful, it’s also terrible for the taxpayer – studies show that money spent on legal aid yields savings down the line, across a range of government departments. The public recognise that what’s being done isn’t right: a recent survey found that only a quarter of the UK population think the current system is fair and two thirds think that wealth is an important factor in gaining access to justice. But, unfortunately, the Tories appear intent on quietly dismantling Attlee’s creation and moving towards the US system where there is next to no legal aid and those who can’t afford representation are dependent on lawyers acting pro bono.
Alongside the removal of help to defend our fundamental liberties, the Tories have introduced fees to make a tribunal claim. It’s already clear that the effect of this has been to sharply reduce the number of claims brought for disability discrimination and it is highly likely that victims of other legal breaches are also now financially unable to enforce their rights. The effect this must have, even if subtle, on workplace and other relationships has got to be negative – it will surely create an increasing casual disregard for legislation; where, for example, employers and landlords are aware that employees and tenants are unlikely to be able to challenge their practices, why be as mindful of their rights?
Unfortunately, the Tories’ assault on our liberties far from ends there. Their plan to scrap the totemic Human Rights Act 1998 is dangerous and utterly nonsensical – the latter made obvious by their failure to do away with the Act to date (they’ve been promising to repeatedly since 2010). In short, every legal option involved in repealing the Act would be a deeply damaging to our constitutional framework, our international standing and our rights. Perhaps the worst option would be scrapping the Act and withdrawing from the post-war European Convention on Human Rights, a move which would put us alongside Belarus and Kazahkstan, the only two European countries which refuse to accept the Convention. To be in such company would be extraordinary and entirely disadvantageous: it’s in our national interest to uphold and further international justice and order, not to undermine the standards which already exist.
However, none of the above means that Mr Gove won’t try to abolish the Human Rights Act – especially not since the Tories have spent years manufacturing the problem. As in relation to the assault on legal aid, it’s incumbent on Labour both to maintain an effective, inclusive campaign against these changes and to put forward proposals of our own which recognise the gravity of the present position. That has to mean at the very least a commitment to implementing a comprehensive, fair and sustainable system of legal assistance based on need.
At present we have a legal system which is both venerated around the world and, by design, out of reach for a great many of those subject to it. That’s grotesquely unjust and it’s our responsibility to do everything possible to put it right. On that I hope we can all agree.
Lucy Rigby is a lawyer and former Labour parliamentary candidate. She will be speaking – along with Andy Slaughter MP and Howard League CEO Frances Crook – on how Labour can save fundamental rights at Fabian New Year Conference, on Saturday 16th January. Jeremy Corbyn will be our keynote speaker, and tickets are still available here.