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article imageOp-Ed: Why austerity will cost us more

By Alexander Baron     Mar 6, 2013 in Politics
The British and other governments are remorselessly downsizing their public sectors and spending in the face of massive resistance. Now, even the high and mighty are questioning its wisdom.
In the UK we have seen and are seeing cuts to the health service, the police, the fire service, libraries, housing benefit, and not least, legal aid, especially civil legal aid.
Yesterday, in an interview with the BBC, Lord Neuberger made his position clear with regard to austerity and the law. Like many senior judges he comes from a privileged background. A Lord Justice of Appeal since 2004, then Master of the Rolls, he is now President of the Supreme Court and the most senior judge in England. Apart from comments made during a court case, it is rare for judges to speak out on public policy, and certainly for judges of this rank, so when they speak, Ministers should listen.
The current attack on legal aid began three years ago, with divorce cases and clinical negligence cases being singled out for cuts. Now, Lord Neuberger has warned that savings to the legal aid budget will be offset elsewhere.
One thing this will mean is a rise in the number of litigants in person. This will mean court hearings will take longer and cases will progress more slowly, with the resultant strain on resources.
Some fields of the law are highly specialised, and for litigants to deal with clinical negligence claims without professional help is asking for trouble.
Lord Neuberger said that if people feel they are denied access to justice, this will tend to undermine the rule of law because some will decide to take the law into their own hands.
The phrase access to justice has been around long before the current austerity cuts. Back in the 90s, the government of the day asked Lord Woolf, then Master of the Rolls, to look into the civil justice system. The result was the Access to Justice Act, 1999. This saw the civil procedure rules torn up. A plaintiff was no longer a plaintiff but a claimant; other changes were more of substance than form, and if any person who sought recourse in the civil law benefited, we have yet to hear of it.
Cuts in legal services are of course only one facet of so-called austerity, and far from the biggest part. Cuts to housing benefit will affect over half a million people. What will happen if people find themselves under severe financial pressure or even made homeless? A few will doubtless turn to crime; some people who are made homeless may end up on the street - which benefits no one, especially themselves - but the majority will be put up in temporary accommodation such as downmarket hotels which will cost even more.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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