In George Orwell’s 1984, there were government departments that had names with a meaning the polar opposite to what the department did. According to Wikipedia, “the Ministry of Truth is the propaganda ministry. As with the other ministries in the novel, the name Ministry of Truth is a misnomer because in reality it serves the opposite: it is responsible for any necessary falsification of historical events.”
So too with the Ministry of Justice. One would have thought the purpose of such a ministry would be to uphold and promote justice, but it appears to do the polar opposite, rationing access to justice, ensuring that accessing justice is difficult for all but the most well off.
But the Ministry of Justice isn’t from 1984, it is Britain in 2017.
The new Lord Chancellor, David Lidington, has been in post since the 11 June 2017. Since that date, for example, the BHT advice centre in Hastings has stopped 11 households from losing their home because they got assistance under the Court Duty Scheme. (Three years ago I wrote a live blog about the Brighton Court Duty scheme undertaken by our Brighton advice centre. I also published an account in October 2014 of the experience of someone whose home we saved through Court Duty).
The MoJ, or should we call it MiniJustice, is consulting on the future of Court Duty services. Court duty for possession cases is the last gasp chance at access to justice. It is the last line of defence, and for many it is their last hope in saving their homes. BHT, for example, has an advisor or solicitor in the Court building in case someone turns up without legal representation.
Almost everyone who responded to the Court Duty consultation said that bringing in price to the tendering will be a race to the bottom, but the MOJ thinks it will bring in greater competition…..
What price does anyone put on this? Right now MiniJustice says £71 plus VAT. That’s the fee organisations like BHT get at Court Duty for saving someone’s home. Imagine the costs to the state, local and national, for each household that becomes homeless. £71 + VAT must be the Bargain of the Century for government.
Solicitors are already pulling out from operating Court Duty contracts. Just last month Tunbridge Wells became another Court without a Desk Duty scheme.
According to Bob Neill MP, chairman of the Justice Select Committee in the Commons and a Conservative MP, that, while he understands the budget pressures the government is under, he believes “we have now removed more than the system can take and should rectify the anomalies as soon as possible”.
MiniJustice had planned to cut the legal aid expenditure by £350m, but the spending has reduced from around £2.2bn to £1.6bn, almost twice the plan. The cuts have had a devastating impact on the number of firms and local advice centres from which the public can obtain help. The latest statistics reveal a 32% reduction in the number of providers since the LASPO cuts were made.
Most importantly, there are now nearly a million fewer civil legal aid cases than there were seven years ago. Further cuts and changes to the Court Duty scheme will exacerbate this and we will see yet more homelessness.