Labour manifesto targets legal aid to safeguard ‘frontline services’

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Labour will implement more cuts in the legal aid budget if re-elected next month and also plans to increase the use of ‘virtual courts’ in criminal cases. The party has also pledged to press ahead with ID cards and continue to make ‘full use’ of CCTV and DNA technology to tackle crime.

The pledges were contained in Labour’s general election manifesto, ‘A future fair for all’, published yesterday. A chapter on crime and immigration offers few surprises, and certainly little for lawyers hoping to see more nuanced thinking on issues such as penal policy, civil liberties and immigration.

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The fact that Labour does not consider access to justice for those who cannot afford it to be a ‘frontline service’ will be seen as particularly telling. ‘To help protect frontline services, we will find greater savings in legal aid and the courts system – increasing the use of successful "virtual courts" which move from arrest, to trial to sentencing in hours rather than weeks or months,’ the manifesto states. There is no mention of seeking alternative funding models for legal aid, which the Conservative Party is considering.

Under Labour, asset confiscation will be a ‘standard principle’ in sentencing, the manifesto adds, with communities given the right to vote on how seized assets are used to pay back the community.

Pledging to ‘put the victim first’, Labour plans to create a National Victims Service. This will guarantee all crime victims ‘seven-day-a-week cover and a named, dedicated worker offering one-to-one support through the trial and beyond’.

The manifesto declares that Labour has provided 26,000 more prison places since 1997. Prison numbers are increasing not because crime is rising, but because serious offenders are going to prison for longer, it adds. The party pledges to ensure a total of 96,000 prison places by 2014.

Labour declares itself ‘proud’ of its record on civil liberties, despite unprecedented and increasing intrusion by the state into the personal lives of individuals. It is to press ahead with biometric ID cards, which will be offered to an ‘increasing number of British citizens, but will not be compulsory’. This ‘will help fight the growing threat of identity theft and fraud, as well as crime, illegal immigration and terrorism’, it states. Labour claims the scheme will be self-financing, but is imprecise on the subject and indeed on whether citizens will be able to get a passport without an ID card.

‘In the next parliament ID cards and the ID scheme will be self-financing. The price of the passport and ID cards together with savings from reduced fraud across the public services will fully cover the costs of the scheme,’ it says.

Planned measures to tackle anti-social behaviour include Family Intervention Projects ‘for the 50,000 most dysfunctional families’. These will offer a ‘no-nonsense regime of one-to-one support with tough sanctions for non-compliance’. Repeat victims of anti-social behaviour will get state cash to pursue legal injunctions, with the costs met by the agency – the police, council or courts – judged to have let them down.

For the ‘most intractable problems’ requiring intervention, Labour will pioneer Social Impact Bonds, encouraging private investors to support social entrepreneurs and the third sector – ‘harnessing additional investment for crime prevention at minimal cost to the taxpayer’.

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