The deadliest sin

The concept of the Seven Deadly Sins in Roman Catholic theology is very old: it can be traced back to Pope Gregory the Great in the sixth century, through to the elaboration of the doctrine by St Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century. In case you are picking them off on a bingo card, they are pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth. Of these, pride is perhaps the worst of the sins. The root of all evil.

If this sounds odd, to modern ears, accustomed to the notion that it is good take pride in your offspring, your work or your achievements, then it should be considered further in this light. Pride in the sinful sense, is excessive belief in one’s own abilities. It is the crossing of the line from righteousness to self-righteousness.

Pride in this sense, is not feeling good about oneself, it is the belief that one is better than others. When a person starts thinking they are better than other people, they stop treating them as they would want themselves to be treated, and start treating them as mere objects to be exploited for gain. 

Politics is the process by which sectional interests in our society, accommodate their differences without the need for riot, revolution or secession. Political parties are broad coalitions of sectional interests. Political parties attempt to bind their various sectional interests together, by an expressed ideology.

But underlying both sectional interests and ideological projection, are human emotions and weaknesses. Countering any degree of natural intelligence or acquired education is a simple inability to accept someone else’s viewpoint or to accept one might be mistaken about one’s own viewpoint. To be able to do these things would be to demonstrate humility and that is the antithesis of pride. 

Pride also notoriously comes before a fall, a week is notoriously a long time in politics, and so in a few short days, the government has moved from a triumphalist fiscal event, to a run  on the pound, the threatened collapse of the pensions industry, the spectre of significantly higher interest rates, and a collapse of confidence in the financial markets, all of which have led to a 33 point lead in the polls for the government’s political opponents. I did not have high hopes for this government, but I am staggered at how quickly they have crashed the economy and the sheer political ineptitude, of the exercise.

One of the consequences of the events of the last week, is a threatened return to austerity. If this does occur to “balance the books” I have little doubt that public spending on justice will be made even more thread bare than it currently is. There is little political mileage in being nice to lawyers and criminals, or that minority of citizens, who become entangled in a civil legal dispute.

At best the criminal justice system will be patched up, to limp on for another year, and at worst it will be allowed to partially collapse. There will be no reform or expansion of Legal Aid, and although sky high court fees will subsist in the civil justice system, there will be no sense that these will represent value for money, for the service provided. Courts will continue to decline, becoming increasingly dilapidated, without the possibility of even a cup of coffee on the premises, and delays will continue, becoming further embedded in the system. 

Of course, it does not have to be this way. There are other views which could be called upon, to be sensibly debated, and thoughtfully evaluated.  A number of years ago, I greatly enjoyed reading the Bach Report, a copy of which can be found here: Bach-Commission_Right-to-Justice-Report-WEB. The proposals are engagingly radical: there could be an argument that they are too costly in “these straitened times”. I would suggest however that all public expenditure is a matter of priority. At the end of the day, what does a society value?

The key proposals were put forward in 2017 as follows:

The commission has concluded that the problems in the justice system are so widespread and varied that there is a need for a new legally enforceable right to justice, as part of a new Right to Justice Act. This act will:
• Codify our existing rights to justice and establish a new right for individuals to receive reasonable legal assistance without costs they cannot afford
• Establish a set of principles to guide interpretation of this new right covering the full spectrum of legal support, from information and advice through to legal representation
• Establish a new body called the Justice Commission to monitor and enforce this new right

The purpose of the Right to Justice Act is to create a new legal framework that will, over time, transform access to justice. But early government action is also required. In part two of this report we set out an action plan for government so that it can take the first steps required to make the right to justice a reality.
• Legal aid eligibility rules must be reformed, so that the people currently unable either to access legal aid or to pay for private legal help can exercise their right to justice. This includes establishing a simpler and more generous assessment scheme for civil legal aid; ensuring all benefit recipients automatically qualify for legal aid; and making the contributions to legal aid more affordable
• The scope of civil legal aid, which has been radically reduced, must be reviewed and extended. The priority should be to bring early legal help back into the scope of legal aid – across a broad range of legal issues – in order to encourage early dispute resolution and prevent further distress and cost downstream. All matters concerning children should be brought back into the scope of legal aid. With respect to representation at court, some areas of family and immigration law should also be brought back into scope
• The operation of the legal aid system needs reform. The legal aid system is creaking at the seams, and practice as a legal aid lawyer is becoming increasingly unsustainable. An independent body that operates the legal aid system at arm’s length from government should replace the Legal Aid Agency and action must be taken to address the administrative burdens that plague both the public and providers
• Public legal capability must be improved. At present, most people’s ability to understand a legal problem or to know where to turn for information and support is poor. We call for a national public legal education and advice strategy that improves the provision of information, education and advice in schools and in the community

When the government first introduced LASPO it estimated it would save £450m a year in today’s prices. But last year (2016), legal aid spending was actually £950m less than in 2010. The Fabian Society estimate that the costs of the proposals in this report will initially total less than this underspend, at an estimated cost of around £400m per year.

A coda: whether you agree with the proposals or not, and there is room for vigorous debate about how access to justice should be preserved and enhanced, I commend appendix 5 of the report to you. Authored by Sir Henry Brooke, before his death, it is a fascinating survey of Legal Aid as it once was, only a legal generation ago: Bach-Commission-Appendix-5-FINAL-1

As a final nostalgic note to the retrospective tone of this post, enjoy watching the video below, and comfort yourself in this difficult period, when all is grim, by looking back to happier times, when we could all afford to indulge our disgraceful habits, when buying cheese: 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.