Access to Justice & Legal Aid

 

On 11th January 2017 I spoke in a Westminster Hall debate on the subject of Access to Justice. People must have access to tribunals and legal aid so that injustice does not go unchallenged.

Thankfully the Scottish Govt does things differently where it has the power.

Here’s some of what I had to say on the subject:

“I congratulate the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West (Rob Marris) on securing this debate and giving us the opportunity to take stock of the human impact of the reforms to access to justice.

Every time I think about the way in which this Government have ensured that ordinary people are denied even the opportunity to try to get justice, I cannot help but think of the words my parents used to dread: “it’s not fair”—   and it really isn’t.

One of the four objectives of the reforms was apparently to “discourage unnecessary and adversarial litigation at the public expense”.

I cannot disagree with that sentiment, but I have been working with a constituent who some people would argue falls into that category. Indeed, some have written him off as vexatious. There is a Scots word we use when someone has not had access to justice and is like a dog with a bone: the word is “thrawn”, and my constituent has had to be. He is a whistleblower: someone who tried to do the right thing—and trust me, he was doing the right thing. He is someone who believes in justice.

My constituent is a whistleblower trying to do the right thing. In trying to help others find their voice and hold power to account, he appears to have become victim to it. He told me of repeated bullying in the workplace as a result of the whistleblowing, which continued when he was on statutory sick leave, undermining his already deteriorating mental health. Access to an employment tribunal, secured by legal aid, has been a lifeline, but it has taken long, thrawn years to get to a position where the might of an institution can be questioned. He will have his day in court, but had he lived in England or Wales he simply would not be able to afford it. That is not me saying, “Scotland good, England and Wales bad”; what I am saying is that it is not fair.

It is not fair on the people who in 2015 found themselves unable to access justice. Statistics provided by the TUC and Unison comparing cases brought in the first three months of 2013 with cases brought in the first three months of 2015 showed the following reductions—I think some have been mentioned already—in the number of cases for the most common types of claims:

– Working Time Directive, down 78%

-Unauthorised deductions from wages, down 56%

-Unfair dismissal, down 72%

-Equal pay, down 58%

-Breach of contract, down 75%

-Sex discrimination, down 68%

Maternity Action said that since the fees were introduced there has been a 40% drop in claims for pregnancy-related detriment or dismissal.

Is the Minister proud of that record? Does he truly believe that all those additional people in previous years were bringing vexatious—or frivolous, as the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West said—claims?

 

 

 

Another area of law removed from legal aid was housing. My constituent, Maisie, is an elderly woman with a range of health issues that have negatively impacted on her ability to care for herself and sustain her tenancy. After a small house fire, her son moved in to support her. John balanced his own parenting responsibilities to his son from a past marriage with his commitment to his studies and his mother. They lived in cramped and totally unsuitable conditions and found themselves more or less ignored by their housing association, which refused to put in the disability adaptations they so badly needed because they had asked three years previously to be moved. For the housing association, it was simply not worth the money because they were going to move, anyway.

Offers of accommodation were not forthcoming and this 80-year-old woman and her carer son were trapped. They have now been rehoused to far superior accommodation and are very happy, but the housing association did what they could have done three years previously for two reasons. First, my team and the Legal Services Agency, a wonderful Glasgow charitable law centre, quoted the relevant provisions of the Human Rights Act to remind it of its responsibilities; and, secondly, there was a threat of legal action. That was possible because my constituents could claim legal aid, as they lived in Scotland. As it happens, the housing association saw sense and things did not get that far, but if a similar thing were to happen to a constituent of the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West, the threat of legal action would be taken with a pinch of salt. That is not right. I thank the Legal Services Agency and my team, because now the 80-year-old woman in question can live out her days with her son in comfort and dignity.

On Sunday, the Prime Minister promised to introduce wide-ranging reforms to correct what she called the “burning injustices” in modern society. She proposed a “shared society”; she also proposed to lead a “one-nation” Government, working for all and not the “privileged few”. She said that the Government’s role is to “encourage and nurture these relationships and institutions where it can, and to correct the injustice and unfairness that divides us wherever it is found.”

How on earth can she square that with taking away the means to correct those burning injustices from all but those who can afford to pay high legal fees?

There are many people relying on us in Parliament and willing us to make the right decisions. I want to be able to tell them confidently that when something is unfair, it will be condemned by us in this place and changed. The situation I have outlined needs to be changed.

To see the recording of this speech please click here