Equality before the law fails in an unequal society. Instead of one legal system, class-ridden Britain now has three.
At the top, the barristers other lawyers most admire have escaped the constraints of the nation state and chase multimillion pound briefs from the global plutocracy. The downwardly mobile members of the squeezed middle find the costs of going to law cripple them. And at the bottom, the coalition has decided the rule of law no longer covers the poor.
Educated readers of the Observer are unlikely to experience the contempt with which bureaucrats treat the inarticulate. We can threaten to report haughty officials to managers, MPs or councillors.
Class so pervades Britain we may not need to threaten at all. A bureaucrat knows we can cause trouble as soon as we open our mouths. For although your clothes no longer announce your status to the British, your accent still betrays you. As an experiment, ask for help in perfect sentences. A few days later, drop your aitches, or talk as if English is not your first language, and see if you receive the same service.
Advisers at law centres tell me that they spend most of their working day trying to persuade the state to do what it was meant to do in the first place. Their guidance on how to challenge officialdom and expert legal help on taking more complicated cases to court will vanish when the coalition slashes legal aid.
Citizens Advice, which is not an organisation given to hyperbole, warns that the overwhelming majority of its caseworkers say that it will soon be “impossible to provide a specialist service, while over half say that it may be impossible to continue providing any advice service at all”.
The government’s abolition of legal aid for whole categories of cases is a direct assault on the essential notion that one law covers us all. Unless those at the bottom of the heap can represent themselves, and the inarticulate will not know how to woo judges, they will be outlaws.
They may have a good case. They may be the victims of incompetence, corruption or the arrogance of power. But they will not be able to exercise their rights for one reason only: they have no money.
Far from having a justice system that protects the weak against the strong, we will have a justice system that abandons the weak.
The argument about legal aid is of a different order to the other debates about cuts to the welfare state. The government is entitled to reduce public expenditure and restrict benefits; the electorate will judge it when the time comes.
But by denying access to justice, it is creating a new class of citizen that cannot challenge its bureaucrats’ behaviour at whatever level benefits are set or whatever the letter of the law says.
Even a hacked-back state ought to deal with the individual justly. He or she ought to able to go to the legal system and ask it to ensure that the state obeys its own rules. Each of us should receive fair treatment, however generous or, these days, miserly public provision is.
Defeats in the House of Lords last week have forced a few concessions and may force a few more, but Richard Miller, head of legal aid at the Law Society, told me where we stood this weekend
The coalition’s plan to abolish legal aid for welfare claimants will hurt the long-term sick appealing against dubious medical rulings that they are fit to work. At present, 70% of legally aided appeals against the loss of invalidity benefits succeed, a hit rate that tells you much about the system’s incompetence.
Once legal aid is gone, incompetence will go unpunished and the sick will become victims of a benefit fraud from above. Half of all domestic violence victims will not qualify for legal aid to help them and their children escape abusive men. The cuts to legal aid for family law will also mean that the stay-at-home partner (usually the woman) will not have a lawyer in a divorce case while the working husband will. Joining the queue of the desperate will be victims of medical negligence and tenants who cannot persuade landlords to repair their squalid homes.
They will have no legal representation. But in a contrast that might come from agitprop, Russian oligarchs are enjoying the services of the best lawyers Britain can offer.
Legal London is agog with news of the fees Jonathan Sumption commanded.
The QC made at least £3m (some rumours say £10m) representing Roman Abramovich in his dispute with Boris Berezovsky on the deals done to secure control of Russia’s oil after the collapse of communism. Sumption’s name invokes images of the sumptuous and, in his case, they are well merited.
So impressed was the legal establishment that it elevated him directly to the Supreme Court, the first barrister to go straight to the highest court in the land since the 1940s.
Readers may wonder why British judges and lawyers are arguing in British courtrooms about the division of the spoils after the fall of the Soviet empire. There is no reason apart from money and there will be many more chances for other lawyers to pocket Moscow gold in 2012. Berezovsky will spend tens of millions suing again. The London courts will hear cases involving Oleg Deripaska and Yukos Capital. Meanwhile, the Russians are well aware that the biases of our libel law and its enormous costs – 140 times the European average – allow litigious oligarchs to silence their critics and they are exploiting their power to censor to the full.
Katy Dowell of the Lawyer reports that the best QCs are demanding a “Russian premium” of £1,500 an hour – “on top of the brief fee, that is”. She illustrates what they must do to secure a £3m case with a vignette. A wealthy Russian recently summoned the capital’s best commercial lawyers to a Mayfair mansion to bid “for what could potentially be the biggest case of their careers”. He allowed each to explain why he should hire them. When a “burly bodyguard” gave them “an ominous tap on the shoulder”, they knew it was time to leave.
While the law celebrates the barrister making £3m from one case, it puts the legally aided solicitor on £30,000 out of work. While the courts welcome Russian oligarchs whose disputes have nothing to do with this country, they close their doors to the cheated, the battered and the infirm from the native poor.
Soon, we will not be able to call the justice system “just” without bursting into laughter.