In what appears to be a ‘cops charter’, government measures currently going through parliament will end the automatic right of working people to see a solicitor if they are arrested.
The changes will mean access to a lawyer whilst in custody can be ‘means tested’. Anyone who is in employment could have to deal with arrest, interview, charge, and bail issues without any access to legal support or advice – unless they are prepared to pick up a hefty legal bill afterwards.
This is only one of many regressive measures contained in the Legal Aid, Sentencing, and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) bill. If passed, this Act will also restrict legal aid for taking civil legal actions against the police, and make it more difficult to get ‘no win, no fee’ conditional fee agreements. This means it will be even less likely that aggression, violence or misconduct by police is heard in the courts.
Working people are already denied access to legal aid in court, and face the choice between representing themselves or paying hefty legal bills. In the magistrates’ court particularly, this increases pressures on people to plead guilty, or accept cautions, rather than spend money on lawyers or face an unintelligible legal system alone.
The changes outlined in the bill could mean that people will have to deal with the entire process, from arrest to trial, without even seeing a solicitor.
It is hard to see these measures as anything other than a ‘cops charter’ granting unrestricted abuses of power. They know full well that most people arrested for minor offences won’t bother getting a solicitor if they have to pay. They will then have even greater freedom to pressurise and bully, to misinform and coerce, and to abuse their position. Most people in police custody are vulnerable, confused or frightened, easy victims for a system that lacks respect for the idea of ‘innocent until proven guilty.’
There has been a remarkable and disturbing lack of fuss about the changes to legal aid, although in the context of other cuts taking place, it is perhaps not surprising. Who, after all, will be worrying about people in police cells when government cuts are targeting hospitals and cutting care homes?
There is also going to be a long time lag before these changes come into effect. The bill is short on detail, as the meat on the bones of the proposals will be provided by a newly appointed Director of Legal Aid. This will take time. Many in the legal sector are also suggesting that this is a white elephant – too complicated and unworkable to ever be implemented.
Whether that is optimism or complacency is not clear. However this bill does give the government
all the powers needed to bring in means testing at the police station. The bill also grants the ‘relevant authority’(which is not fully defined) direct access to HMRC /government data, including
our benefit / employment status, income, and even the name and address of our employers. This level of data sharing should in itself be ringing alarm bells.
Those that do manage to get legal aid will also find some nasty restrictions getting in the way. Defendants may find themselves unable to get legal aid for any solicitor other than the one who gave them initial legal advice in the police station – even if they were unhappy with the advice they received. And police station advice is even more likely to be delivered over the phone, not in person, making it even harder for vulnerable people to fully understand what is happening to them.
The police, who already routinely abuse their powers on the streets, will now find it much, much easier to abuse their powers in the police station. There will be even more scope to make that unlawful arrest, or to order that unjustified strip search, and there will be increasingly fewer opportunities to hold Hogan-Howe’s ‘Total Policing’ in check.
We all know there is no need in today’s society to have committed a crime before being arrested. Being on a demonstration is frequently enough, particularly if you also happen to be young, and even more so if you happen to be both young and black.
Just last week the Metropolitan police stated they had arrested one hundred and forty three people on a Congolese demonstration. It didn’t seem to matter to the Met that those demonstrating had close family and community ties to the victims of a regime which has killed 8 million people and raped a million women.
In an attempt to take their grievances to Downing Street,the demonstrators found themselves shoved, kettled, beaten by police batons and finally arrested. With only a basic understanding of the criminal justice system, many of them would be easy prey for a system that denied them legal help and advice.
The LASPO act will give a big boost to the new era of ‘robust policing’ and this is – or at least should be – a problem for all of us. The police frequently boast that they ‘can do anything we want’. As far as the criminal justice system is concerned, it is looking increasingly like they are right.