There is no better example of the times we live in, than the contrast in attitudes between Ursula Brannan and Hugh Strickland, witnesses before the Public Accounts Committee, on the effect of Legal Aid cuts.
One was armed with the facts, prepared with his arguments, and ready to justify his organisation. The other gave the impression that the MPs were lucky she had bothered to turn up.
One provided evidence based research to demonstrate why his organisation should continue to exist, while the other claimed to be acting on evidence, then realised that she wasn’t, when cross examined by Ms Hodge.
One runs an organisation whose future is so precarious that he doesn’t know whether it will be funded next year. The other is responsible for implementing Legal Aid cuts, and irritated that people weren’t a little more grateful for her hard work.
Hugh Strickland represented the Citizens Advice Bureau, and Ursula Brannan represented the Ministry of Justice. This spectacle makes up the first section of the BBC iPlayer clip (available until 6th Jan).
At 35 minutes, Ms Brennan rejects the allegation from Ms Hodge that policy was implemented without first gathering evidence of the likely effect. With no humour intended, Ms Brennan claims that her department “deliberately and consciously” conducted research “after” implementing the policy.
Even the Conservative MPs became irritated at this. At least the ones in marginal seats were. When pressed further by them, Ms Brennan clarified her position by explaining that, “The piece of evidence, which was the overwhelming piece of evidence, was the level of spend.” In other words, the evidence on how best to implement the policy, was the fact that it was policy.
At 49 minutes, Peter Hancock, of HM Courts claimed that he had evidence that shows that litigants in person take less court time than those who are represented by a lawyer. This flies in the face of the anecdotal evidence from judges, that hearings are 50% longer when the litigant is unrepresented. It may be that simple cases are more likely to be conducted without a lawyer, while complex cases are likely with.
Margaret Hodge made a good point, when she queried, “If judges have to take 50% more time, a judge costs more per hour than a legal aid lawyer?” Peter Hancock replied that he is not sure that it was true that a judge costs more, but others pointed out that the costs of the whole court should be included in this equation.
At 1:07 minutes, Meg Hillier MP tells us that across the country there are “deserts of legal advice”, where firms have legal aid contracts but no one qualified to give the advice, because it is no longer cost effective to keep the skills base going.
At 1:56 minutes, Matthew Coates, CEO of the Legal Aid Service, told the committee that quality had improved since they have been cutting pay rates. Then he said that he has no evidence that the quality had fallen. Then he said that he hadn’t examined the question.
My overall impression of this committee hearing was one of the arrogance of the process of cuts. There has been no effort to mitigate or examine the adverse effects of the removal of civil legal aid.
There is a good word for this: “Financialisation” is when there is no other concern except the money.
When justice stops being based on principle, and becomes a something that can be bought, sold, or haggled over, it seems that even the truth becomes a hazy commodity, which can also be bought, sold, or haggled over.
The positive message I take away from this hearing, is that there is at least one corner of Westminster where principle still has a value: The Public Accounts Committee.
Let’s hope that the witnesses have come away with that lesson learnt.