The chair of an all-party back bench committee which analysed the effects the legal cuts will have described Chris Grayling as a man who knows the price of everything yet the value of nothing. Jibes which were once said by the famous writer Oscar Wilde were several times aimed at the Justice Secretary when he spoke to give evidence before the Joint Committee on Human Rights as well as before Dr Hywel Francis.
The committee had a set task of examining the consequences of three restrictions on legal aid which the Justice Secretary is in the course of introducing. These are namely; limiting the scope of criminal legal aid available for prisoners, not allowing legal aid for people not resident in England and Wales for at least a year, and refusing to grant legal aid in cases with borderline prospects of success.
The committee stated that it was astonished the coalition government refuses to accept that the proposed legal aid reforms will have detrimental effects on the common human rights such as access to justice which includes in itself being able to obtain legal advice where necessary. The committee further believes that the basic constitutional requirement that legal aid should be made available in order to have access to the courts in relation to important and complex matters should be available, of course subject to various tests and limitations.
The report compiled by the committee showed clear evidence of political compromise as it did accept that the restriction of legal aid to those residing in England and Wales for less than a tear was in line with human rights principles. Further, the MP’s stated that measures. The committee aired their concern regarding the impact which the residence test is likely to have on vulnerable groups of people such as victims of domestic violence and children. The committee further made acknowledgement that the complaints lodged by prisoners may be resolved through an internal system with an ombudsman dealing with their concerns. The report did not agree with the state of the law which suggests that prisoners who have been detained and suffer abuse as to amount to a breach of their Article 3 rights are not eligible for legal aid in order to pursue compensation.
In regard to the concern for borderline claims the law in its current state does not provide effective and practical access to justice. Recommendations were made for the government to retain power to grant aid in such cases where it is deemed appropriate. For the moment, the reforms are set to take place unless there is a change of heart by the government of the Justice Secretary.
‘Bringing rights home’ has been a term used in the media for quite some time by politicians in favour of creating a British Bill of Rights which is to replace the much controversial Human Rights Act. The British Home Secretary Theresa May recently said in a statement “we need to stop human rights legislation interfering with our ability to fight crime and control immigration” she continued, “that’s why, as our last manifesto promised, the next Conservative government will scrap the Human Rights Act, and it’s why we should also consider very carefully our relationship with the European Court of Human Rights and the convention it enforces”.
Such a radical move to repeal an Act often dubbed to be of ‘constitutional’ importance by many academics will have a much far reaching effect on the British legal system as well as the economy. Human rights and the European Union go part and parcel which means that Britain will need to leave the Union should they repeal the controversial Act as per Ms May’s statement. The European Union has integrated much of international law into our domestic legal system already, as a start the European Court of Justice which has many times developed important principles of law. A reshuffle will indeed be in urgent need should Britain opt out of Europe and the Human Rights Act. Such drastic actions appear to be opposed by the judiciary as Lady Hale, the UK’s most celebrated female judge stated that the UK would “regret” repealing the Act and continued to say that the only benefit of such a change would make be that it becomes “easier to get rid of certain unpopular foreigners”.
A financial cost in a time of a recession
The European Union is no doubt the world’s biggest trade block and the United Kingdom’s most important trade partner. It has been a trend the EU accounts for a majority of UK exports and also a major source for imports into the country. Leaving the Union will automatically rule Britain as an outsider subject to taxes and duties on various imports and exports. This in effect is likely to reduce the economy’s trade deficit and put the government in an ever harder financial back-foot. This consequence does not appear to be a rational risk to take in the face of minimal economic growth and at a time where Britain could boost trade relations between other major EU partners.
The question then of whether to repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with another piece of domestically drafted legislation becomes and ever larger and more complicated debate. It would appear that strong opposition for the Act is coming from the Conservative party while the judiciary are in favour of working with the international courts in providing British citizens with fundamental human rights. A final point and some food for thought on this debate would be to reinstate the fact that the original European Convention on Human Rights was pioneered by British politicians and drafted by British lawyers, which is to say that Britain had a great influence on the operation of the Treaty in the first place.
The Court of Appeal recently ruled that the government’s flagship scheme to tackle unemployment was unlawful and fundamentally flawed.
Under the back to work scheme, unemployed people would work for free in various voluntary roles in return for keeping their unemployment benefits. The theory behind this was that the unemployed would gain vital experience and skills to support subsequent job applications, in addition to keeping them in the world of work. In contrast, many critics have condemned the back to work scheme as slavery, given the fact that the work performed is entirely unpaid, contrary to legislation.
However, the Court of Appeal recently heard the twin cases of Cait Reilly, 24, of Birmingham and Jamieson Wilson, 40, from Nottingham. Miss Reilly had been working voluntarily at Poundland, and was told she had to remain working there to receive her benefits, in addition to the placement forcing her to quit her voluntary work at a museum. Mr Jamieson, a former HGV driver, objected to his unpaid placement- cleaning furniture- and lost his jobseekers allowance for six months.
In the unanimous judgement handed down by the Appeal Court, the three judges quashed regulations concerning the back to work initiative. In their verdict, the judges stated that the 2011 regulations behind the scheme were found to be lacking in providing information to the unemployed, especially as to the sanctions for non- compliance with the scheme (I.e. refusing the unpaid work placements), in addition to not complying with the relevant Act of Parliament authorising the Department of Work & Pensions (DWP) to introduce the programme.
In a radio interview, employment minister Mark Hoban expressed his disappointment at the decision, stating that “what the judge said is that there should be more detail in the regulations. What we are doing [now] is introducing emergency regulations to provide that detail. So it’s business as usual for people who want support to look for a job. At the same time we are going to appeal this judgment.” Indeed, DWP has since then very rapidly brought in new, clearer rules and regulations to allow the unpaid back to work scheme to continue temporarily whilst an appeal is lodged. Long term, however, this judgement means that the scheme in its current format will either have to be scrapped or radically overhauled.
In the wake of this judgement another legal case is likely to arise, this time concerning whether the unemployed who lost their benefits for not enrolling in the scheme can get a refund for lost benefits. The government is adamant that there will be no such compensation- but if the matter is brought to court, that would be the decision of the judiciary and not ministers.