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.

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The Spectacle of Russell Brand

Russell Brand is an interesting character. Whilst I was never particularly keen on his humor in Big Brother’s Big Mouth, though that may have been more the association with Big Brother, the more I see of him the more he appeals, and I have tried not to like him. I have never been interested in traditional trendyness, I have aspirations and associations with the ideals of my lifestyle, but the typical ‘Shoreditch Twat’ style, of which Russell Brand’s charicature of Danny from Withnail and I is, ostensibly, the epitome, has never particularly appealed.

But I find myself growing to respect him when I hear him speak. Whilst not engaged in the same way and perhaps to the same extent as many activists, the accumulation of his various statements and actions demonstrate an engagement that defies his stereotype. I saw him perform live at a charity gig for Campaign Against Arms Trade (or possibly Amnesty I can’t remember), which is not that impressive given that most comedians do charity gigs from time to time. Towards the end of his set he said “hmm so what else do I care about, oh yeah, Free Tibet!” which, again in-and-of-itself is not that much to write home about. Though if you know my history you will know that Tibet is an issue I care a lot about. Then there was his appearance at the G20 in London which was criticized on many fronts, though why it should differ from anyone else being there I am not sure. Russell Brand is an anti-capitalist, probably with a better understanding of what that means than a lot of people on that march (certainly than a lot of anti-capitalists and anarchists I have met). Most recently I saw this interview with Jeremy Paxman in which he speaks very intelligently on the subject of fame and celebrity culture. The whole way through waxing poetic about Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle and the Situationists, a philosophy that is perhaps more relevant now than it was when Debord wrote it in the late 1960s. It was after watching that interview I was inspired to write this article. And with that I think I have spent enough time talking about what he is or isn’t, time to talk about what he said, because that is much more interesting and I know who Brand is significantly less than he does, which seems not a lot.

He starts by saying that he always wanted to be famous and ends by saying that now he has fame it is “…like ash in my mouth”. What he is referencing is an idea that cuts right to the heart and soul of some of the biggest issues and problems with modern society and consumer culture. Brand says that the initial appeal of fame was “glistening and visceral” in a “desolate and barren culture”. This is the idea that without something to make them so, our lives feel meaningless and that the aspiration of fame and celebrity will make us whole. When he says that fame has become “…like ash in my mouth” what he means is of course that fame does not make you whole, it does not make you feel truly meaningful. This is the root of many of the problems we face. That our ego prevents us from comprehending the meaninglessness of life and that over the eons of human existence many ideas have come up that have exploited this and told us to focus on a ‘higher purpose’. People put the ‘vulgarity and excess’ of modern society down to a lack of religion in life.

But all religion is, is another form of the same exploitation*.

Religion probably first came about as a way to explain why the sun comes up and why the rain falls based on primitive understanding of observations. The ritual associated with religion became a reason, other than pure survival, to do the things we do, to achieve and to progress (though Ben Goldacre’s argument that all of human endeavor is in pursuit of orgasm is another good point). With the Enlightenment leading to the Industrial Revolution, science began to disprove religion and mass communication was able to spread this disproof wider than ever before and so the role of religion in every-day life has inexorably declined but only to be replaced with the result of mass-production; mass consumption.

The decline of religion and the increasing ease of survival since the industrial revolution as meaning and purpose has left us with a great feeling of emptiness, of lack of understanding and more time. So to fill this void, like a Star Trek alien parasite in the body of a dying red-uniformed extra, we latched onto the next thing we were offered: consumerism.

Consumerism plays on the idea of aspirations; that we can be harder, better, faster, stronger, fitter, happier and more productive than we are now. And corporate mass communication sells us the idea that the ultimate achievement, the aspiration to work towards is fame. When those who achieve fame get there, they realise that there is nothing there, that they still have the same empty feeling, as Brand puts it “it’s like being presented with a great bounteous feast and when you take a bite you realise there is no taste”. So the quest then becomes to increase your status as a celebrity that creates the idea of A-list or Z-list celebrities; we judge their worth on how many times we’ve heard their name.

Because celebrity is sold as the ultimate achievement, the thing to strive for, as well as being achievable without any real effort, we end up with two things: the use of celebrities to sell products; perpetuating consumerism and the lack of interest in working to achieve something; you just need to, as Brand puts it, “fit the narrative” to be famous. The path to achieving celebrity is manifested in the cycle of material consumption that is more familiar to most of us. We see Paris Hilton with an iPhone so we go out and buy an iPhone, but then we are not suddenly rich and happy like Paris so it must be something else, it must be the Prada handbag or the diamond necklace or whatever. We are told that the path to happiness lies in that which makes us unhappy, unfortunately the hair of the dog is not the cure.

We are also unhappy because we are isolated. We are an empathic civilisation, hardwired to live in communities and we do not cope well on our own. As our ability to communicate has increased, our communities have grown wider and we have become increasingly selective about who our communities are. We have let celebrity dominate how we identify ourselves and therefore who we identify as our community. By so doing, we have let corporations isolate us, making us more susceptible to the omnipresent message that consumption leads to community and happiness.

The ultimate manifestation of this corporate led isolation is social media. Something like 70% of internet users are on a social network and 50% of those are on Facebook. We are increasingly defining our communities through social networks and adjusting our lives and consumption accordingly – who needed a phone that could check Facebook before Facebook was ubiquitous? Through networks like Facebook and Twitter, we are positioned as mini-celebrities. On Twitter we can issue edicts to our multitude of ‘Followers’ and keep up-to-date with the minutiae of our friends lives and the lives of celebrities we ‘Follow’. This only serves to increase our egos and add more value to the underlying concept that there “must be some reason”.

To a large extent I am resentful of the popularisation of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and the theory of survival of the fittest (that predates Darwin). It positions nature as a dog-eat-dog world, out to get us and that we must look out for us and our own in order to survive when this is not the case. It makes us selfish creatures when we needn’t be and shouldn’t be. Perhaps we can dominate our selfishness and our fear. Realise that we have too little time to be to spend it wanting to be and as Brand puts it, “acquire something more valuable, more beautiful”.

Just some thoughts for a Saturday afternoon anyway. I was going to write about how crap NGOs are at using the media and social web but this was more enjoyable.


*
I am not anti-religion. Many people derive great satisfaction and happiness from the many religions of the world. They have inspired some of the greatest works of art and acts of kindness and compassion along with great acts of barbarity, cruelty, genocide and oppression. And that goes for ALL religions. Lets just try to look at this objectively.

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What went wrong with No Pressure

The No Pressure film lasted all of about 12 hours on the internet. The overwhelmingly negative response pressured 10:10 to remove it, but the damage was done someone captured it from Youtube and within minutes of it being blocked it was up again through a different account. I think the real epic fail here was the response from 10:10, not the film itself.

Initially, with the flood of negative comments that came from both the climate change movement and the right-wing deniers, this seemed like an unmitigated disaster. Certainly through the narrow perspective of Youtube and Twitter, it was nothing short of a catastrophe.

The video was offensive on a number of levels, both to those inside and to many people outside the climate change ‘movement’. One of the perpetual problems with the whole 10:10 campaign is the emphasis that if we all ‘do our bit’ we can solve climate change. I am by no means the first to say that this is bollocks, George Marshall said it better than I will ever be able to. The common response to this is to say “but industry and governments are signed up too! Even e.on are part of it!” and that kind of illustrates the problem with it. If it is easy for e.on to be part of and still aim to build coal fired power stations, then it is clearly missing the point. It’s like BP saying “from now on we are going to use biodiesel in the boats that drill the oil wells”. This video is essentially saying “if you don’t do your bit we’ll track you down and kill you”. So maybe we can take the killing bit with a pinch of salt but the point is the same, they are delibertately putting the emphasis on individual action rather than where it needs to be; on governments and industry.

But I think an even bigger fail was the way that 10:10 seem to have handled the controversy around the video. So far all that has happened is they took the video down and posted an apology about it’s offensiveness. This did, however, take them the best part of a day to put it up, not the quickest response, nor the most effective. Far better it would have been to get out on Twitter and on the blogs and join in the conversation. Had 10:10 refused to be defeated, had they stood their ground and said “we’re sorry if you were offended, but the point of the film was to say that we need to act now to stop climate change” then they would have come out a lot stronger and they would have been able to change what people were talking about; from the shockingness of the film, to the issue it was trying to address.

Shocking films can work in campaigning, they definitely have their place but they have to be done right, NSPCC have had a few that have been very good. The problem is when the content becomes more shocking than the concept and that is what has happened in this case: the image of blowing children up is more disturbing than climate change.

It seems that this was an ill-conceived idea carried out poorly and to not have a plan for what to do if it all goes wrong is largely unjustifiable, given that this was a fairly predictable scenario. So I think it’s a fail for the film but an epic fail for the response.

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That No Pressure Film

Ok so 10:10 put out this film which even by now pretty much everyone must have either seen or heard about. If you haven’t you can watch it at the end of this post. It is gory.

**Spoiler Alert**

Basically the video shows groups of people that have signed to the 10:10 campaign discussing how they are going to achieve the goal of a 10% cut in CO2 emissions with only 3 months left. Those who dissent, who say they aren’t going to take part, are then blown-up by those who are. The message: “take action or we will die”? or perhaps “take action or we’ll kill you”? I am not sure, and neither are most poeple that see the video. The overwhelming majority of comments are negative:

  1. Peter Askew paskq

    Hey @1010 what’s going on? 6 minutes ago via Twitter for iPad

  2. PeopleProfitPlanet greenchampions

    I hope @1010 know that clips of #1010Boom are elsewhere on YouTube, and leading to very very negative reactions 9 minutes ago via web

  3. JammieWearingFool JammieWF

    @1010 Putting the ‘mental’ in environmental wackos http://bit.ly/97EcNu 11 minutes ago via web in reply to 1010

  4. Ashley Roden-Bow AshleyRRB

    @1010 have scored an own goal with new campaign video. As events in Nigeria today show, blowing up people you don’t agree with isn’t funny.

But I have to wonder if this is as much of an epic fail as it first appears. On the one hand this looks like a fairly desperate attempt to create a ‘power of enforcement’ that this campaign is significantly lacking. On the other hand is has started a conversation about the urgency of climate change and the urgency of the deadline for 10:10.

There are many things wrong with the 10:10 campaign (emphasis on individuals not industry, no power of enforcement, no accounting for embedded emissions) and the lack of power to enforce the 10% cut is a big one. When the year is up how will they award those who achieve it? How is it audited/judged? So it seems that this is a sudden “oh fuck!” style realisation of this. I know it is not as I remember speaking to one of the 10:10 campaigners about this issue when it launched, but that is how it comes across. The strong message of “join us or die” is very likely to put people’s backs up, it is a very confrontational message. The shocking nature of this video is not the thing that people are annoyed about, but the combination of these two elements. The film Grandma that was entered into the 1 Minute to Save the World competition is just as shocking, I might even suggest more so, but it’s message is clearer and more relevant.

If 10:10 can manage this properly (early indications are that they can’t, but lets wait and see) then they can turn this into a very clever stunt that essentially is high-risk and low-risk at the same time.

By making it shocking it will create a stir and the reaction can go either of two ways:

  • Positive and they have the end result they are hoping for – people get the message and pull their socks up.
  • Negative and it creates an even bigger stir but it starts two conversations, one about what NGOs should/shouldn’t be doing and one about how little time we have to sort out climate change and how little time people signed up have to achieve their 10% cut.

Both of these conversations will continue regardless of the life of the video. Arguably there is a third conversation; a slight dig at celebrity involvement in NGOs but I think that will get largely over looked.

What 10:10 need to do now is to lead the conversation and make it about urgency not about the shockingness of the video. I also think there is a responsibility on those in the online climate change community to steer this conversation. As seen with the domination of the #climatecamp trend on Twitter, the right and climate deniers have a big presence on social networks. This could be a god-send for the deniers that, if they keep trolling it, will blow up into an even bigger mess for the wider climate movement. If the online climate movement can swallow their indignation and help to steer the conversation onto urgency, rather than slamming their collective doors in the face of 10:10 we might be able to not only salvage something from this but actually make the point that we don’t have time to mess about with climate change.


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.

“Football fans should be forced to pay policing bill” says Councillor

Councilor William W. McBraveheart today made a statement saying that football fans should be forced to pay an extra fee on top of their tickets to cover the cost of policing football matches in the future.
“Why should the innocent citizens of the area who have no interest in football have to foot the bill for entertaining a bunch of drunken hooligans”.

At recent games the policing costs of football matches have been known to cost more than a billion pounds of taxpayers’ money. Each game requires huge numbers of police on standby in case of violent clashes between the hooligans and police. There is also the cost of further policing into the evening after the matches and as the hordes of intoxicated yobs descend on city streets to wreak havoc – frequently causes fights and property damage.

Chief Constable B. Acon of the police force said “we have to deploy hundreds of police for each event and pay overtime, this means it can be extremely expensive to police football matches, often costing upwards of a trillion pounds.

“if we were to recover that cost from the boozed-up thugs themselves it would mean the taxpayer does not have to foot the bill” he added.

As football matches are a frequent occurrence the annual bill for policing of these events can run into the squillions of pounds. A spokesperson for the Football and Beer Alliance said “wehaaaayyy, yeah f**kin wicked mate, gonna smash the f**kin copper in the face”.

Councilor McBraveheart added “if we are able to make those responsible for crimes pay for the policing they are responsible for it takes the financial burden off the taxpayer and the accountability away from the police force, allowing them to be more effective at tackling crime and domestic extremism like the inebriated rapscallions responsible for football violence”.

Pigs with Lipstick: New Tories are Old Tories

Does anyone remember the 1980s? Think back, I know it was a long time ago – I was 5 when they ended so my memories mostly involve a puppet with a slightly better command of the English language than Jordan who spat at the TV screen – but as a society we seem to have some sort of collective amnesia that starts around about 1979 and went on right up to about 1997. The result of this is that we have lost the ability to see cause and effect.

So first point, to preempt any comments about my age – yes I was young in the 1980s but I am capable of reading so saying I don’t know what I am talking about because I wasn’t able to tie my own shoelaces at the time (not till I was 7) is inept, inapt and insipid (and a few other words beginning with ‘in-‘. Grow up. And it is my generation that is having to deal with the consequences of that most short-sighted decade.

The Conservative economic policy in the 1980s could be summed up in three main points: public spending cuts, privatisation and the creation of the laissez-faire banking sector.

The Conservatives embraced Friedman(-ist/-ite?) economic policy and in 1979 began bringing in a vast number of cuts to public services and increased privatisation. Welfare and education bore a great extent of the cuts. The current government are proposing huge cuts to welfare, particularly tax credits and the Sure Start programme, and are hinting at cuts in education – or at least an increase in the cost of education.

Ok so every government makes changes to welfare and education this is nothing new. Well, lets delve a little deeper. Another area Thatcher became notorious for was privatisation. BT, BP, BA, BAA, British Gas (soon to be BG?), British Rail (in 1997) and the National Grid are just a few of the services that were privatised. Are there any similarities with the plans of the current coalition Conservative government? Well a lot has already been said about the privatisation of education  – even though it will be government funded private education! Charter schools are a BAD idea and lead to increased social division. There are also plans to privatise 49% of the Royal Mail, with the remainder split between the government and staff. The Conservative reasoning behind this is that government regulation and intervention is bad for the economy. I think I saw this point best illustrated by David Horsey’s cartoon on the right. But the point is this is the same policy they had in the ’80s.

So what else did they do? Well they encouraged growth in the financial sector at the expense of manufacturing industry. Again, this is another policy the current government are pursuing. With the rise of the ‘casual gamer’, video gaming is set to be one of the biggest industries in the world. The UK has a growing industry in video games, particularly in Scotland where Rockstar North (formerly DMA Design, creators of Grand Theft Auto) are based. The Conservative government has scrapped the intended tax breaks for the video games industry that would have provided a huge incentive for more games developers to set up shop in the UK, providing thousands of jobs in a growing market. At the same time their banking reform policy is not exactly coming down hard on the financial services sector, Deutsche Bank analysts said “Taking 2% off the 2012 tax rate for the five banks listed in the UK would increase profit by £1.16bn, that it is should almost offset all of the banks tax. Overall a good outcome for the banks”.

Yet again it is the same old Tory policies. Worse still their lax attitude towards the financial sector is what allowed the current recession. Yes the Labour government should have done something about it but it was the Conservative policies that created the system in the first place!

And one final similarity; at the time Thatcher was warned by leading economists their economic policies would deepen the recession at the time. And it did. The current Tories have also been warned by leading economists that their economic policies will lead to a ‘double-dip’ recession. Maybe they should listen this time.

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Cuts to legal aid risk its collapse

Access to legal representation in the UK is a right, one that won’t be completely abolished without a serious outcry (I would hope at least), but the quality of that representation is something that is seriously under threat. Solicitors working in legal aid have had to swallow a bitter pill for the second time this year after being told the Legal Services Commission, the body that governs legal aid in the UK*, doesn’t have enough money to pay its bills. Cue the crying of “why should I care that some toff lawyer cannot afford another jacuzzi in his second home in Toulouse” or “I don’t want taxpayer’s money going to defend some knife-wielding immigrant gang-member hoodie scumbag”. These are misconceptions about the legal aid system.

First of all, can we all just forget the myth that all lawyers are paid vast sums of money and are simply intent on squeezing every last penny they can from people in return for doing little work. Next we need to recognise the two different types of lawyers we have in the UK that work on legal aid; solicitors and barristers (aka counsel) – barristers are the ones with the wigs and robes – and most work extremely long hours. And lastly legal aid exists to allow access to legal representation to those that cannot afford it, and is used to represent people in cases of childcare, sexual harassment, employment tribunals, domestic abuse as well as crime. It is not about tax money defending criminals.

The problems with legal aid are three-fold; legal aid fees are unbalanced, cuts and mismanagement by the Labour government has left the Legal Services Commission in a situation where it cannot work efficiently and both the previous and current governments are very hostile towards complaints made by solicitors. The net result of this at worst could be the collapse of the legal aid system, but more likely will simply mean that only inexperienced and junior solicitors will work in legal aid as there will be very little money to be made from it. This will mean that the most vulnerable will be denied access to decent legal representation.

Law is often seen as a high-paying profession with many solicitors and barristers earning huge sums of money. In some cases this is true, private tax and corporate law for example, though not often in legal aid. Legal aid is charged on a system of hourly fixed rates which have not risen in more than 10 years and when compared to the rate of inflation actually amount to a year-on-year cut of 2.5%. This means that over the last decade there has been a 25% cut in the value of remuneration for legal aid while costs have soared. Many solicitors no longer offer a legal aid service and those that do are struggling on a month by month basis to survive. And there are more changes being made to legal aid fees, particularly with regard to childcare.

The previous Labour government, under Lord Chancellor Jack Straw, took the running of the Legal Services Commission in-house, integrating it into the Ministry of Justice and made a large number of crucial staff who process bills and payments to solicitors redundant. This resulted in massive delays in payments, further compounding solicitors’ cash-flow crisis. This in turn has meant that many firms that rely on bringing in money from legal aid work have not been paid money owed since February this year and are teetering on the brink of collapse.

In addition, the new Tory government is looking to further cut funding on services which are currently available by 50%, the implications of which will be devastating. In the field of childcare there has been a massive increase in demand following the Baby P case, yet there is less money and fewer solicitors able to meet the demand and so more children not getting the help they need. The overall result of the delays in payment, the low-fees and fewer and fewer solicitors offering legal aid means that cases such as Baby P’s will be more common.

When complaints about the legal aid fees system have been brought forward before, they are shouted down by further touting of the myth of the overpaid lawyer. To prove the point, the government has in the past released figures to demonstrate that legal aid lawyers are in fact very well paid – they provide the annual earnings of the top five Queen’s Councils (a high ranking barrister) who earn c. £500,000 annually from legal aid, therefore all solicitors must be earning the same. This is simply not true and the fact of the matter is that the situation will only get worse if the Tory government goes ahead with it’s planned 50% cuts in legal aid spending, a LOT worse. Legal aid will end up being the domain of junior solicitors and the poor will lose out on representation by senior and experienced solicitors. The impact will mean that the most vulnerable in our society – children and victims of abuse – are left without help.

*It was rightly pointed out on Bright Green Scotland that the LSC governs legal aid in England and Wales, not in Scotland where it is the Scottish Legal Aid Board

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Update July 2010

So I have not posted for a while as I have been busy working on a number of projects. I have two articles coming up that I am currently working on, these are a little more in-depth and planned than most of my previous work so they are taking a little longer to put together. Look out for them in the next few days.
A quick breakdown of everything I have been up to since my last post in April:

So keep watching this space for two articles, one on the shambles that is the UK’s legal aid system and why cuts to its budget will be disastrous and some philosophical ramblings on relating the role of social media and the ideas of Guy Debord.

Leaders’ Debate: Lets just invite Nick Griffin and be done with it!

So the leaders’ debate was a pointless exercise in sophistry and political posturing. They all came across as outrageously right-wing and seemed to be pandering to the Express-reading “silent-majority” UKIP/BNP voter. On a question about immigration, to be fair a difficult situation without an obvious and simple answer, the leaders seemed to be competing with each other over who could be the most racist, isolationist and authoritarian.
The policies espoused by each leader were absolutely appalling, from Brown’s “we’ll steal anyone with any sort of qualifications”, Cameron’s “We’ll have maximum number allowed in” and Clegg’s (very surprising) “I’ll abolish their right to freedom of movement”! It was like watching the Yorkshire Businessmen sketch from Monty Python.
Brown: If I get in, I’ll only let skilled poor people come to the country
Cameron: If I get in, I’ll not only let in skilled poor people but only, let’s say, 6 poor people.
Clegg: Well, if I get in I’ll stop them moving around the country, and abandon Trident
Brown: Well if I get in I’ll lock them up in detention centres
Cameron: Well I’ll bring in education and family policies that keep them poor!
Clegg: Well I’ll abandon Trident
Brown: I’ll lock them up, keep them poor and have them beaten
Cameron: I’ll lock them up, keep them poor, have them beaten and take their children away from them
Clegg: I’ll abandon Trident!
Brown: I’ll lock them up, keep them poor, have them beaten, take their children away from them and demonise them in the media
Cameron: Right, Well, I’ll lock them up, keep them poor, have them beaten, take their children away, demonise them in the media and send all the boys to catholic schools where they’ll be systematically abused by the clergy!
Clegg: I’ll abandon Trident!

Immigration is a right, not a crime and No-one is Illegal.