The following is the text of an opinion column Tony wrote for the Manchester Evening News, which appeared on Tuesday 11 June 2013.
Lawyers generally rank with estate agents, journalists and – of course – politicians in the public’s popularity stakes.
But justice is there to protect individuals – it’s also there to protect society as a whole. It is an essential safeguard against the abuse of power.
That is what makes our legal system is the envy of the world. The government’s plans for legal aid would transform it into a form of bargain basement justice. The ramifications will be long-lasting and difficult to reverse. They must be challenged and defeated.
The Justice Secretary Chris Grayling claims that £220m will be saved in the coming years if his plans to “transform”, as he terms it, legal aid. In reality the proposals represent a real threat to something that goes to the very heart of British society – the right to a fair trial.
The Bar Council says the plans will put our world-renowned system of justice at risk, describing them as a blunt instrument which will leave “deep scars”.
Highly respected Manchester barrister, Pete Weatherby QC says: “Chris Grayling is transforming legal aid in the way an abattoir transforms a cow.”
I’ve been contacted by many legal professionals who all agree that these changes are dangerous and deeply worrying. One Manchester barrister wrote to me saying the proposals have the effect of destroying a profession that has “served the public since Magna Carta” – without it even being debated in parliament.
So what is it about these proposals that are so controversial?
At their heart is the idea that legal aid contracts should be put out to tender and that a defendant will no longer have the right to choose their own counsel.
This sounds dry, but in actual fact it is essentially the “Tescoification” of our legal system, with giant companies swooping in to take away a service that, until now, has been provided by local professionals who know their communities.
We’ve all seen the effect massive supermarkets and out-of-town shopping centres have had on our local high streets. Well, the Justice Secretary’s plans have the potential to wreak the same kind of damage on our legal system.
In fact, it’s no surprise that one of the companies that has expressed an interest in bidding for these tenders is… Tesco. Others include haulage firm Eddie Stobart and security company G4S.
Now, I appreciate that in this difficult financial climate every little helps, but do we really want to have a legal system which is driven solely by the cheapest possible price? The direct result of this will be that less qualified people will be performing duties that are currently carried out by trained, professional, experienced lawyers. This is simply wrong.
These plans don’t just threaten the most vulnerable people in our society – they are an affront to us all.
I have written to the Justice Secretary to ask him to think again. The sign of a mature politician when faced with such clear and legitimate public concern is to listen, and act, and, bluntly, change their mind.
The question for Chris Grayling is, is he’s big enough to do just that?
© Manchester Evening News 2013. Visit the MEN’s website here.
Tony has also responded to the Ministry of Justice’s consultation on the proposals. You can read his response here.