Archive for April 3rd, 2011

Dear Reader,

I don’t usually begin my weekly postcard with law… in fact, more often than not, I don’t even discuss law in my postcard.  This week, I shall make an exception.

Bar Chairman: We Will Continue to Make Case on Effect of Cuts

The Bar Council: “The Bar Council, which represents barristers in England and Wales, has pledged to continue to make the case on the effect of legal aid cuts, as the Justice Select Committee announced its response to Government proposals.

Responding to the Select Committee’s findings, Peter Lodder QC, Chairman of the Bar, said:
“We are pleased to see a number of constructive recommendations which we have made have been taken on board by the Select Committee, particularly in family law cases.

“However, we are disappointed that the Select Committee has concluded that the legal aid system in England and Wales is one of the world’s most expensive, despite highlighting the significant gaps in comparative evidence.”

While it may be convenient for government to analyse our legal aid system by reference to the spend in  other countries;  this line of argument, while superficially attractive to the ‘cutters’, is flawed.

If we start from a reasonable premise that government has a primary duty to ensure basic human rights – health, education, opportunity to work and the protection of the vulnerable – these rights can only be of value if they are enforceable in law.

I do not have a difficulty with the principle that litigation in relation to commercial or purely private matters, which do not impact on core rights, should not be funded by the state.  I do feel, however, that access to justice and professional legal advice where an individual is vulnerable, where an individual is being prosecuted for crime, where an individual’s basic human rights are being infringed by the apparatus of state or private enterprise, is as important as medical care. In extreme cases, denial of access to justice can be as serious to an individual, perhaps more so, than health problems falling short of the life threatening and may even trigger physical and mental health problems which have to be treated by the NHS.

The Bar Council takes the view that diminishing (the legal aid budget and access to justice) will only serve to increase the power of the State.  I think they are right.  Hand wringing by axe wielding politicians and the repeated mantra that we must live within our means is all very well.  If access to justice is diminished…surely we are diminished as a nation… as a people? These cuts could, as the Lord Chief Justice has observed, lead not only to a serious erosion of justice but, ironically, also to increased costs.  Litigants in person tend to increase the real costs and impose considerable burdens on judge, prosecutor and claimant lawyers to ensure a fair process.

This blog post from Adam Wagner, UK Human Rights blog, is useful: Legal aid cuts: Do we spend more on legal aid than other countries?

Is anyone surprised that most/many of our universities are bidding to triple their fees to £9000?

I’m not.  Yet, it was reported today in The Observer, that government ministers were surprised.

Extra staff called in after UK surge in top tuition fees

The Observer: Ministers taken by surprise as department is swamped by universities’ decision to charge new higher rates

Just a few reasons why I am not surpised:

1.  Turkeys do not vote for Christmas – not even university turkeys at the very bottom of the ‘league table’

2.  Public relations dictates that as the ‘top’ universities are charging £9000…if we ‘less good’ universities don’t charge as much, there is a danger that we will be seen as providing a lower quality service. (The fact that they often are providing a lesser quality of education is, of course, irrelevant to this point.)

3. While many academics talk about independence from the strictures and evils of corporate mammon (Yes… some universities are quite happy to take money from the big corporates for ‘research’ and even, it would seem, from Libya!)  – the fact is,   the state funds most universities.  The state wishes to reduce funding.  Ipso facto, the argument must go, if we don’t fill our boots that void…we will lose our jobs.  Ergo… we, at the bottom end,  must put our fees up so that we can continue to provide courses for students who will pay our salaries even if they don’t get jobs because employers tend to cherry pick the best students.

Why would employers do otherwise?

I’m sure it can’t be as simple as I suggest above – but it can’t be far off part of the truth? Having worked in the private sector of legal education for many years, I know where the ideas that Vice Chancellors put forward come from..and where the bodies are buried. Part of the solution, unpalatable though it is, is not to cut state funding to the level planned… but cut the number of poor universities at the bottom?  It won’t happen until they fail.  I suspect that some universities at the bottom will fail.  They won’t get the recruitment at the higher fee levels and.. if they don’t get the customers, they will go bust. Students won’t be keen to invest £9000 x 3 years to go on a university course where there is a very much lower chance on graduation of getting a job?  Will the State step in?  I doubt it.   Give some of the money from the budgets of poor universities (which are closed down) to the better universities to increase places and  access to education?  This is a matter for “Two Brains” Willetts. After all – we can sell HMS Ark Royal etc etc… why can’t the government decommission  a few universities at the bottom end or flog them on ebay?

We shall see soon enough. I hope I am wrong….. and we all live happily ever after in a world of full university teacher employment,  where all the students get life enhancing jobs and pay their tuition fees off in full to our Big Society state.

I leave this issue with…

Shadow universities minister Gareth Thomas said: “This is just the latest sign of how badly the tuition fees fiasco has been handled. David Cameron and Nick Clegg failed to listen to independent experts who were warning even before the fees vote that allowing tuition fees to treble would cause problems they hadn’t properly thought through.”

AND…finally… because I need a laugh after all that….

Best, as always.  Have a good week


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