What price justice? The UK's proposed legal aid cuts

How much do we care about justice?

Published 15 March 2014  |  
(PA)
The Church of England said legal should be available to all who need it

There is no doubt that from a Christian perspective it is a matter which should be of passionate concern to us. A quick search of an online Bible reveals no fewer than 130 specific references to the subject, including the famous Old Testament quotation which declares: "Let justice roll on like a river, and righteousness like a never-failing stream!" (Amos 5v24).

But in addition to all those individual verses, justice as a theme is writ large in the pages of Scripture from the beginning to the end. Indeed, the gospel is all about the heartbeat of God's justice – both in its recognition of human sinfulness and in the sacrificial atonement of Jesus Christ. Moreover, at the centre of any recognisably Christian ethic is a desire for justice to be done well and to be done equally for all people.

That's why proposed legal aid cuts in the UK – due to take effect from next month – should be of such concern to Christians. The Government says it is determined to press ahead with fee cuts for barristers and solicitors in an attempt to slash £220m from the £2 billion annual cost of legal aid.

The Criminal Bar Association argues that the changes will drive many solicitors and barristers out of the profession and hence leave defendants without lawyers who have sufficient time and expertise to argue their cases. Nigel Lithman QC, the chairman of the CBA, told a demonstration of more than 1,000 solicitors and barristers last week: "If these cuts are not addressed then the British justice system, which is held in such high esteem around the world, will cease to exist as we know it and the British public can no longer expect true justice to be delivered."

The 'Financial Times' reported that "criminal barristers say they will no longer be able to accept cases funded by legal aid as they will not be financially viable. Many of the lawyers at the protest stressed their concern that the cuts would reduce access to justice for defendants, particularly vulnerable members of society."

The plans have also attracted concern from the Lawyers' Christian Fellowship. In a briefing paper it has declared: "There is a God-given mandate to speak up for those who will be adversely affected by Legal Aid cuts. Involvement by Christian lawyers in this issue shows the outworking of the Bible's teaching to pursue justice for everyone in society, rich or poor."

Interestingly they also point out that "from a scriptural perspective... providing effective justice is a primary task of government" – and that while there is no direct Biblical mandate for rulers to provide universal healthcare or education, "justice and proper redress are specifically called for".

An editorial in 'The Guardian' a few days ago observed: "Politicians are convinced that voters simply don't care about access to justice, like health or education. The cuts have stirred scarcely a twitch of protest beyond the profession."

But as Christians we should care passionately about justice. Labour MP David Lammy, who has previously served on the Church of England's Archbishop's Council, estimates that "half of the 1600 criminal legal aid firms in UK will be forced to close, losing local knowledge and specialist expertise. Those that remain will be competing to provide more for less." And, as he points out, the UK legal system is the tenth cheapest out of 14 comparable European countries.

And what about us? One Biblical writer leaves us with this challenge: "The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern." (Proverbs 29v7)

David Baker

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