Legal aid cuts will wreck lives and increase inequality

The Tory spending cuts are based on ideology, not sound economics. This is becoming more and more clear as the scope of the cuts are revealed. Recent revelations in the Tories’ plans to increase the tuition fee cap to £9000 per year will block hundreds of thousands of potential students from attending university, particularly the elite universities which already have a disproportionate number of students from private and public schools.

The latest cuts to be announced are to the legal aid system. Ken Clarke announced this week that the Tories plan to slash £350m a year from the legal aid bill. The legal aid system is already critically underfunded; it was neglected by Labour and is now being destroyed by the Tories.

There hasn’t been an increase in spending on legal aid in more than 10 years, whilst costs including inflation have soared. This amounts to a real-term 25% cut in spending over the last 10 years. Further cuts won’t just restrict access to legal representation, they risk the collapse of the entire system.

Due to the lack of funding over the last decade, the Legal Services Commission, the body that controls legal aid in England and Wales, is so underfunded that it cannot afford to hire enough staff to process legal aid bills from solicitor firms. This has the knock-on effect that these firms cannot pay their overheads. Many are on the verge of bankruptcy, others have stopped offering a legal aid service.

The cuts to the legal aid will impact on almost every area: clinical negligence, education, employment, immigration, benefits, debt, housing and certain family law cases. These are all areas that significantly affect many people on low-incomes on a daily basis, many of them needing this support to keep their homes, jobs and families. The repercussions of these cuts will have far-reaching consequences for the rest of society also.

If legal aid is taken away from employment cases, this will allow employers to exploit their low-paid workforces with impunity, safe in the knowledge that they don’t pay their staff enough for them to be able to afford legal representation. Included under employment law is sexual harassment in the workplace. If women, already disproportionately affected by the cuts as well as workplace harassment and exploitation, cannot get legal representation the pay-gap will increase and women will suffer further exploitation and oppression in the workplace.

There are exceptions for domestic violence cases written into the changes, but this won’t be sufficient to protect people, particularly women and children. It is estimated that only 2.5%-15% of domestic abuse cases are reported. If victims fear they could be left in crippling poverty due to legal fees fewer cases will be reported and more people will live their lives in fear and oppression.

Reform is desperately needed in the legal aid system but not because we need to make cuts and not by cutting peoples’ access to services. Whilst the vast majority of solicitors earn very modest sums from legal aid, particularly considering the amount of work they do, there are a handful of barristers who earn disproportionately more. Many of the top Queens’ Counsels can bill the legal aid system for up to £500,000 per year, on top of their salaries for private cases. I would suggest this is where the savings can be made, not by taking the services away from the people who need them and the overworked and underpaid solicitors.

Free access to legal representation for those who need it is a cornerstone of a fair and equal society. The cuts to the legal aid system will lead to increases in exploitation, sexual harassment, discrimination, segregation, poverty, debt, homelessness, domestic violence, abuse….

Doesn’t sound much like a fair society to me.

Why Media Spin is So Dangerous for Society

The recent Camp for Climate Action at RBS’ Global HQ outside Edinburgh was typically reported with all the originality of Die Hard 4. The right-wing media rolled out the usual cliches; hippies, unwashed, posh, idiots, students etc. And the left-wing media was, mostly, supportive. Nothing new there. But then the media seemed to turn on Climate Camp. Articles on the, usually supportive, Guardian website were extremely critical accusing the camp of stifling free speech and reporting our lack of interest in Twitter as a failure of the camp as a whole.

There were also many newspaper reports that were simply not true. The Sun ran with the headline “RBS Rioters Battle Cops” illustrated with a photo of some protesters next to some police. Had The Sun used a wider crop of this image their readership would have realised the inaccuracy of the article. The protestors are not ‘battling’ the police (they all have their backs to the police) but are steadying a prop siege tower that was wheeled, painfully slowly, toward the police line. There was certainly no rioting, at all, anywhere on the site. It is a wonder that the Sun ignored the siege tower, for many of us on site we thought that it would be the image that dominated the media coverage.

There was a significant amount of coverage surrounding the phantom “oil slick” on the A8 outside RBS’ head office. This was alleged by the Lothian and Borders Police, though no evidence has turned up to suggest it actually happened. Regardless of the lack of evidence, media outlets jumped on the story and reported it without a moments thought for editorial integrity.

Again, as in years before, the police paraded a “cache of weapons” in front of the media, this year it was a hammer and a chisel, though it is still unclear where these came from – there is no press release from the Lothian and Borders police relating to the items. In the Sun article on the Climate Camp, with no regard to journalistic integrity or adherence to the truth, these were instantaneously pluralised, making the alleged crime appear greater.

Another disturbing example from The Sun comes slightly further down the page. Not only do they repeat the totally unfounded accusations that Climate Campers where responsible for the phantom oil-slick on the A8 but they, either deliberately or unknowingly, attribute more legitimacy to the story through their formatting of the quote from the Police.

The placement of these comments suggests that both the police spokesperson has made this entire comments and that someone from Climate Camp has taken responsibility for the phantom oil incident – for which, to say they have not is an understatement. In fact the two statement refer to two completely separate events that happened many miles apart from each other.

These are just a couple of examples from one article in the, famously right-wing and reactionary, Sun newspaper. Though suspiciously absent from it’s website this weekend is any reporting on the activities of the National Front with a PR strategy English Defence League in Bradford. Whilst this might be commendable (personally I think fascists should be kept as far from the media as possible) their history on reporting of the activities of the EDL suggest they might have other motives.

In July this year, they reported on the arrest of EDL member John Broomfield on charges of plotting to bomb a mosque. The circumstances of this incident are subject to question as there were no charges made, but the reporting of it seems to downright support the EDL, particularly when compared to the reporting of the Climate Camp.

The emphasis throughout the article is on the accused being innocent, whilst this may be the case, were the accused of Asian descent I can’t help but feel this might be slightly different. The image used to portray Broomfield shows him ‘defiant and patriotic’ in an England t-shirt. Look at any of the articles about Muslims accused of terrorism and they are all police mugshots.

“So what?” I hear you cry “a right-wing newspaper being right-wing, big whoop”. Thing is, though, the trend in all media is towards reporting assumptions, based on cliches and stereotypes, regardless of what actually happens. So what are peaceful protests become “riots” and “battles”, all Muslims become “terrorists” and racists are heralded as working class heroes. This sort of reporting is dangerous because it legitimises these stereotypes. It is naive and wrong to say that people don’t believe things just because they are in the media, people only believe things when they are in the media.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink he references a psychology test that demonstrates how the reinforcement of images in society really can shape how people see each other. People gave significantly more positive responses to word association tests regarding black people when they had spent 30 minutes before the test looking at pictures of people like Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu or Martin Luther King.

What this shows is that the views of the EDL are based on media lies. Since the majory of UK media only, or biased to the extent that they might as well only, report negative stories about Muslims and immigrants we perceive them negatively. And so it is the same for protesters at Climate Camp, the reporting turns on them, so the people don’t support them and the association with climate change becomes negative.

If you listen to the media it seems we are almost on the verge of a race war, yet there is little (no) evidence to suggest this is actually the case. The vast majority of people get along fine and immigration is a huge benefit to the UK economy, not to mention to society.

This is why I am so angry with The Guardian for turning on the Camp. The Guardian, more than any other mainstream media outlet, has supported the Camp for Climate Action. But last week it chose to put out a series of very negative articles about Twitter “backfiring” on the Climate Camp and alleged attempts to stop freedom of speech, no doubt partly in retaliation for journalists being called “weak and cowardly” and “lazy” in a media guide, even though it was written by Guardian regular George Monbiot (does the failure to research that prove them lazy?). I don’t think the Guardian has a responsibility to always support the Camp, but they, like every other media outlet, has a responsibility to be apt and not misleading.

It seems so many of the ills of modern society can be traced back to mass representations; obsession with celebrity, fear of Islam (and the perception of any Muslim as a terrorist), mass consumption, political/environmental/sociological apathy. So this is my plea: please media, just FUCKING STOP IT! If we fill the media with positive images our wider perceptions will change and it is YOUR RESPONSIBILITY to do this.

Read the response from Climate Camp to the Guardian articles here, here and here.