There was a time when conservatives tried to assure people of continuity. The social order would remain intact. Revolution and reform would be suppressed, disruptive change averted. As political consciousness spread, this message became untenable. They repositioned themselves, first as cautious reformers, then, under Margaret Thatcher, as Jacobins, tearing down the old establishment to release people’s stifled aspirations.
They attacked the professions. They attacked state monopolies and the state itself – or so they claimed. While Thatcher insisted that she was the champion of the entrepreneur, the pocket shareholder, the little man, her policies greatly enriched big business and the rentier class. She claimed she was getting the state off people’s backs, but introduced oppressive laws that curtailed our freedom. She deregulated business and re-regulated citizens. Now Cameron’s government and its supporters are attempting the same trick: defending the elite by attacking it.
Nowhere is this clearer than in Kenneth Clarke’s assault on civil legal aid, presented to the public as a blow to greedy lawyers milking the state. The Daily Mail, which knows the script to the letter, supports his proposed cuts by blasting the “fat cat lawyers taking a fortune from hard pressed taxpayers”(1) and welcoming plans to slash their “multi-million-pound earnings.”(2)
The framing has worked: hardly anyone – certainly not the Labour party – now dares to oppose this crude assault on the rights of the poor. One month before the consultation period for the government’s green paper ends(3), there’s scarcely a murmur of protest. Roll up, ladies and gentlemen, and join the campaign to Save the Lawyer.
Don’t we all hate them? The tax lawyers worming through loopholes to ensure their clients don’t pay. The defamation lawyers silencing people who challenge the rich and powerful. The corporate lawyers twisting the arms of legislators. The well-padded barristers thronging the benches of the Palace of Westminster – like, er, Kenneth Clarke.
But in this case the perception is false. Legal aid lawyers are not fat cats, but mangy strays. A legal aid solicitor who has been on the job for several years earns, according to the Guardian’s chart of public sector pay, an average of £25,000(4). That’s a lot less than teachers, town planners, probation officers and social workers, and a bit less than prison officers and sewage plant workers earn(5). I’ve been going through the likely consequences of the green paper with two solicitors from the legal aid practice Turpin and Miller(6). Philip Turpin, who runs a firm of 60 people, takes home £42,000 a year. These aren’t starvation wages. But they are a fraction of what partners in other areas of law are paid, or almost anyone else at this level in either the public or private sectors.
The consequence of this phoney war on fat cats is a massive empowerment of the real elites. To understand what these reforms mean, don’t just look at the victims; look at the beneficiaries.
John McNulty, who works for Turpin and Miller, gave me examples of cases he’s working on which would no longer be eligible for legal aid. An elderly lady has just been evicted from her house, because her son forged her signature on the transfer of her property and stole the money. She’s now homeless. It looks like a case of negligence on the part of the conveyancing solicitors, who had an obligation to meet her and ensure that she knew what was happening. Her only hope of redress is to sue them. For that she needs a handwriting report, which costs £2000. Today she can get one; when Clarke’s reforms bite, such sloppy solicitors will walk away untouched. Who gains? Fat cat lawyers of the kind these cuts were supposed to restrain.
A woman was beaten up by police outside a pub, who then claimed that she had assaulted them. CCTV evidence shows that her account was true and theirs was false. She can’t launch proceedings without a CCTV footage report. Today legal aid will pay; when the green paper becomes law, it won’t. Who gains? The police, whose abuse of power will meet even fewer impediments.
A prisoner was kept inside for 14 months after he should have been released, because the probation service lost his notes. Today, he can get legal aid to pursue a compensation claim for this cock-up. After Clarke has savaged the system, he won’t be eligible. Who gains? The incompetent bureaucrats who wrongly deprived a man of his liberty. So much for the government’s promise to get the state off our backs.
Clarke’s reforms protect landlords who have illegally evicted their tenants from being sued. As the government’s Localism Bill creates a powerful incentive for landlords to change their tenants(7), there’s likely to be more abuse and, without legal aid, less protection. The cuts protect businesses and public bodies which unfairly sack their workers or fail to pay their wages, as they annul the free legal advice to which the workers are now entitled. They protect schools which have unfairly excluded disadvantaged or disabled pupils. They protect any profession – structural engineers, surveyors, accountants, lawyers – which can be sued for negligence. Those who are no longer entitled to legal aid will find themselves fighting, single-handed, against landlords, insurance companies and the state. Either they will clog up the courts, as cases involving litigants in person generally take much longer than cases with legal representation, or they will give up and take the knock. That’s what the Tory war against elites looks like. The rich reap none of the pain and all of the gain.
No win-no fee cases can’t fill the gap. Even now, lawyers tend to select those which are so clear-cut that the case can scarcely be contested. Clarke’s simultaneous reforms to civil litigation costs, which are more justifiable, will make the real fat cat lawyers even less inclined to take on difficult cases. Nor will the Big Society pick up the pieces. Charities which help people with cases of injustice receive much of their funding from legal aid(8).
So beware rightwingers posing as heretics. Throughout government and the corporate press, the guardians of the status quo present themselves as edgy and dangerous, kicking against the system, overthrowing accepted truths. But they wage war against one sector of the establishment only to the advantage of more powerful players. They rail against climate scientists, while defending the interests of big oil and big coal. They rant about doctors, to the benefit of companies who want a chunk of the health service. They lambast “health and safety Nazis”, but not the careless corporations the inspectors try to restrain. As our failure to contest Clarke’s disastrous legal aid cut shows, we keep falling for it.
8. Eg Shelter, Citizens Advice Bureaux and legal centres.