Brutal cuts to legal aid, unlike steep hikes in tuition fees say, are perceived to be a vote-winner. They will certainly find favour with many; the tabloids will make sure of that. As ever, in wheeling out their caricatures of ‘fat cat’ lawyers and scheming, criminal immigrants, they followed the time-honoured journalistic dictum: ‘simplify, then exaggerate’.
It doesn’t appear to have dawned on them (or perhaps they are being disingenuous) that a large part of their own constituency will be badly hit by these reforms. People of modest and below-average means in other words – those who are ill-served by media that continue to define ‘middle-class’ as people in the top earnings quartile. ‘Only the poorest of the poor will continue to be eligible for legal aid,’ the Law Society warns. ‘These proposals would represent a sharp break from the long-standing bipartisan consensus that effective access to justice is essential to underpin the rule of law.’
A version of these cuts would have happened under Labour, let us be clear. And that is partly where our disappointment lies. In opposition, the Conservatives demonstrated some imagination in contemplating alternative sources of legal aid funding. This idea has not been abandoned, but the proposals in the consultation are limited and appear half-hearted. This only reinforces the perception that the very principle of legal aid – at least for non-criminal matters – is now on trial.