Kevin Curley: We must oppose legal reforms that aim to silence the voices of charities

Proposed changes to judicial review could make it more difficult for charities to challenge the state on behalf of the weakest people in society, writes our columnist

Proposed changed to judicial review are about more than cutting public spending, writes Kevin Curley
Proposed changed to judicial review are about more than cutting public spending, writes Kevin Curley

I had naively thought that government cuts to legal aid and reduced access to the judicial review process were part of the frantic drive to cut state spending. Recent conversations I have had with people who work with those seeking legal help have convinced me I was wrong.

Kirsty Palmer is chair of trustees at the North Kensington Law Centre in London. She has recently lost nine of the centre's 15 case workers. Cuts to legal aid mean that the centre can no longer help people with housing or employment problems. Hassan, who has not been paid the minimum wage, cannot be supported to get redress. He drops out of the legitimate jobs market and joins the 'informal economy'. As a consequence, the government loses his tax and national insurance contributions.

Sheila, bringing up three children on her own, is threatened with eviction by her landlord. With no advocacy available from the law centre, she loses her home and ends up in expensive bed-and-breakfast accommodation paid for by her local authority. In both cases, poor people suffer and the cost to the state is greater than the savings achieved by cutting legal aid.

In February, the government announced its plans to reform judicial review. These reforms will limit the ability of individuals and charities to challenge government decisions. Essentially, more financial risk will be placed on claimants and those who support them.

Ravi Low-Beer, solicitor with the Public Law Project, tells me that the proposals will reduce the scope for charities to use judicial review because it will be much harder to get a protective costs order, thus exposing charities to the risk of high legal costs. What's more, charities with information and guidance to offer the court will be discouraged from making written submissions or appearing because they will be liable to pay their own costs and those of the defendant.

It's clear that Chris Grayling, the Secretary of State for Justice, wants to put a lid on the ability of charities to make their voices heard by the court in the public interest. "The savings will be tiny, but the court will be deprived of charities' knowledge and perspective," says Low-Beer.

So cuts to legal aid and limits to the voluntary sector's access to judicial review are not about saving money. It seems that the government's aim is to make it more difficult for the sector to challenge the state on behalf either of disadvantaged individuals or sections of the community. The aim fits the pattern we have seen with the lobbying act, which limits campaigning by charities and - another Grayling imposition - the 'gagging' clauses in Work Programme contracts, which prevent charities from speaking out when unemployed people are treated badly.

The Criminal Justice and Courts Bill is going through parliament now. It's important that we act quickly to defend our access to judicial review. This bill threatens our independence and our ability to speak up for the weakest people in society.

Kevin Curley is a voluntary sector adviser

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