LDLA Questions of each of the LibDem Leadership Candidates

 

 

 

Liberal Democrat Lawyers Association asked 10 questions of each of the LibDem Leadership Candidates. Here are the questions and their responses:

 

 

Tim Farron

 

 

Norman Lamb

1.   Do you agree that one of the fundamental tenets of liberal democracy - if not the most fundamental tenet - is the right of people to seek redress or have their rights protected through the rule of law? If you agree and how would you articulate this? 

 

Tim Farron:

The rule of law is central to everything we believe. It is fundamental to the political freedom a liberal state must uphold and crucial for economic prosperity. But rights without effective redress when they are violated are empty and the rule of law will fade away without effective courts.

 

 

 

 

 

1.   Do you agree that one of the fundamental tenets of liberal democracy - if not the most fundamental tenet - is the right of people to seek redress or have their rights protected through the rule of law? If you agree and how would you articulate this? 

 

Norman Lamb:

Our rights as citizens are worthless if we cannot defend them.  How can we have a society that is free and equal, if there is no recourse we can take when that freedom is infringed?   For me, my liberalism is based on the essential principle of powerful citizens - the idea that politics is about empowering the individual to take action, to make sure their voice is heard.  And nowhere is this more important than in our legal system.

The reality is that there is not equal access to justice and that is something we must address.

2.   In the last Parliament the Parliamentary Party supported drastic legal aid cuts - including taking early advice on civil matters such as debt, employment disputes and welfare appeals out of scope. Both of you voted for these changes, despite Conference voting against them. There have also been cuts in criminal fees and moved to substantially reduce the number of contracted criminal defence suppliers.  Have you re-evaluated your position on these issues? 

 

Tim Farron:

As you know, we spoke at the time about these issues, which I had serious concerns over - I supported your argument and your alternative proposals to make up savings from elsewhere.

The Justice Select Committee has produced an impressive report on what happened, pointing out that these changes were badly researched, badly implemented and have failed in all respects except for saving a bit of money, and even that is less than expected because of the rise in litigants in person who have clogged up the system. In the light of that, I don't think anyone could now defend the LASPO Act's reforms and we need to think again.  

On the move to fewer, larger criminal defence suppliers, what I really care about is ending the deserts in provision that we now have and making sure that we still have a local court system. I'd be very interested in hearing from LDLA members about how you think that can be done.

 

2.   In the last Parliament the Parliamentary Party supported drastic legal aid cuts - including taking early advice on civil matters such as debt, employment disputes and welfare appeals out of scope. Both of you voted for these changes, despite Conference voting against them. There have also been cuts in criminal fees and moved to substantially reduce the number of contracted criminal defence suppliers.  Have you re-evaluated your position on these issues? 

 

Norman Lamb:

In the last parliament, after heated debate our Parliamentary Party took the decision that we would support Conservative proposals to cut legal aid.  We were wrong.  I was a lawyer for many years myself - in criminal law and then in employment law - and I know not just from constituency casework but from ex-colleagues too what impact these changes have had. I have met constituents at my surgery appointments who have almost certainly been wronged, but have no route of appeal because they cannot afford the legal fees.  I know from local welfare advice charities the pressure they are increasingly under because of the lack of funding for those needing legal advice on benefits appeals.  In terms of the impact on the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, this was quite possibly our biggest mistake in the last government. We should have focused far more on modernising the criminal justice system and finding savings in that way. Ultimately the way to achieve real savings and improve outcomes is to radically cut the prison population.

 

3.   A related access to justice issue has been the sharp imposition and rise of different types of user fees in Courts and Tribunals, from civil claims to use of employment tribunals, and the recently introduced criminal courts charge. Do you think courts should be run as full cost recovery businesses or be fair and accessible to all, and especially for those on modest and low incomes? 

 

Tim Farron:

I'm against treating the courts as a business. The law has a broader public purpose than just settling disputes between private parties. The rules of law that emerge from the courts are part of the framework the law provides for everyone. Access to justice especially those on lower incomes is something I very much believe in.

 

 

3.   A related access to justice issue has been the sharp imposition and rise of different types of user fees in Courts and Tribunals, from civil claims to use of employment tribunals, and the recently introduced criminal courts charge. Do you think courts should be run as full cost recovery businesses or be fair and accessible to all, and especially for those on modest and low incomes?   

 

Norman Lamb: 

We should reclaim the cost of our Courts and Tribunals system through user fees wherever we can - but they must be reasonable. There must always be exemptions to make sure those with limited financial means are not deterred from seeking justice.  If there is evidence that some people are unable to access our legal system because of the cost of court fees, we should make the case for reform

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4.   Another hugely controversial issue for the Party on civil liberties over the last 5 years was the passage of the Justice and Security Act which introduced   "closed proceedings" (aka 'Secret Courts' for certain sensitive cases - do you think the Party could have done more to stop this legislation and what is your attitude towards it now?

 

Tim Farron:

I voted against secret courts. Going along with them was one of the biggest mistakes the party made in government. The whole idea of secret courts undermines the rule of law. Extending it to habeas corpus and judicial review cases was totally unacceptable.

 

 

4.   Another hugely controversial issue for the Party on civil liberties over the last 5 years was the passage of the Justice and Security Act which introduced "closed proceedings" (aka 'Secret Courts') for certain sensitive cases - do you think the Party could have done more to stop this legislation and what is your attitude towards it now?

 

Norman Lamb:

This is an incredibly difficult issue.  As a liberal - and as a lawyer - I believe that everyone should be entitled to a fair trial.  A fair trial is clearly not possible when the defendant is unable to examine and rebut the full evidence presented against them.  But the state also has a duty to protect its citizens - and, in the particular circumstances the Government was faced with, it was a very difficult judgement about whether to accept the use of closed material procedures in very specific circumstances, to protect intelligence sources.  

We should remember that closed hearings already took place in the family division - they are not entirely without precedent - although I argue strongly for more openness in these proceedings.

As a government minister, I could not vote against the government on the Justice and Security Bill without resigning from my role at the Department of Health.  I felt I was achieving really significant change, and didn't want us to lose the momentum we were finally building on mental health issues.  It is important that we secured a duty for the Justice Secretary to report annually on use of the powers and made sure that the decision to allow CMPs would lie with judges not ministers.  But my view is that other safeguards being sought by Julian Huppert and others were also important in making sure that these powers were genuinely used as a final resort.  I simply cannot judge whether we could have secured all of these amendments if we had applied more pressure.  We should be willing to work with other parties to secure improvements to the legislation wherever we can.

 

5.   Both of you are on record of saying that the prison population needs to be significantly reduced, but what policies would you promote to actually achieve this? We've had years of offender rehabilitation initiatives but prison numbers keep going up.

 

Tim Farron:

Ending the criminalisation of drug users would have a dramatic effect on prisoner numbers by itself. We also have to do a lot more to divert those with mental health problems out of the system and into appropriate treatment. Long term crime reduction measures, such as early intervention, are also essential. In terms of sentencing, it is vital that all the alternatives to prison are really available in all parts of the country and that courts know about them. We also need to move to a presumption against prison for non-violent crimes. We should go wherever the evidence takes us with, for example, restorative justice, making it available for a wider range of offences, including more serious offences. 

 

5.   Both of you are on record of saying that the prison population needs to be significantly reduced, but what policies would you promote to actually achieve this? We've had years of offender rehabilitation initiatives but prison numbers keep going up.   

 

Norman Lamb:

It won't win us any friends at the Daily Mail, but a key change needs to be - not sending as many people to prison in the first place.  We need to look carefully at the way short sentences are used: 58% of people serving prison sentences of 12 months or less reoffend within just a year, because prison simply isn't an effective way to address the root causes of offending behaviour.  We can use the savings from reducing the prison population to invest heavily in more robust community sentences, drug and alcohol treatment, beneficial unpaid work schemes, and support for those with mental ill health, and restorative justice.  While there have been schemes in the past to improve rehabilitation, too often there hasn't been the funding in place to support good ambitions.

 

We should also end the mass incarceration of children and young people.  The vast majority of under 21s released from imprisonment reoffend within a year.  People under 21 shouldn't go to jail in the vast majority of cases, and where there is a clear safety-based case for imprisonment this should be in small secure homes for children and young people, not large Young Offenders Institutions. Again, we must focus on tackling the root causes of offending behaviour.

 

Our basic principle must always be that policy should be built on evidence.  If prison isn't preventing the majority of people from reoffending, we should spend the money on other approaches that are more likely to work. This is not soft on crime - it is about rejecting populist approaches in favour of approaches that will actually keep people safe and reduce offending.  We should also recognise that many of those who commit offences are themselves victims of abuse, inequality, and other societal failings.  We will never reduce crime if we are not serious about tackling the underlying causes.

 

6.   Both of you have said that an early priority for the Party's campaigns in this Parliament should be to defend the Human Rights Act (in light of the Conservatives' proposals) - with reduced Parliamentary representation how should the Party go about campaigning on the HRA?

 

Tim Farron:

We need to mobilise the whole party in this, learning lessons from campaign groups such as 38 Degrees and from environmental campaigners. That means the full range of activities - demonstrations, e-petitions, public meetings, lobbies, conferences, books and pamphlets, the lot. I want the party to be a movement for liberal values and the HRA is about as core as it gets.

 

6.   Both of you have said that an early priority for the Party's campaigns in this Parliament should be to defend the Human Rights Act (in light of the Conservatives' proposals) - with reduced Parliamentary representation how should the Party go about campaigning on the HRA?

 

Norman Lamb:

Very simply, we have to show people why the Act matters.  

Here in Britain, we must highlight the cases such as the elderly couple who were separated after 65 years of married life by a social services department (after highlighting their rights under the Human Rights Act, the council backed down); or the family who were subjected to days of council snooping to find out which school catchment area they lived in. They could defend their right to a private family life; also, the millions of us whose DNA was kept on police databases despite there being no reason to suspect us of any offence, who have now had that data destroyed.

And we must also make the case that Britain will have no moral authority internationally if we refuse to sign up to these internationally-agreed basic rights at home.  How can we stand up to Putin over gay rights, challenge Saudi Arabia over the inhuman treatment of journalist Raif Badawi, and condemn the illegal imprisonment of political prisoners, use of torture and execution, and suppression of fundamental freedoms by China in Tibet, if we scrap our own Human Rights Act?

7.   The outcome of the election coupled with political events in Scotland over the past year, calls for further devolution, pressure from English MPs for   "EVEL" as well as pressure to withdraw from European Institutions and the HRA debate, is increasingly making a mess of the UK's already messy Constitution. How would you respond to the UK's constitutional crisis?

 

Tim Farron:

We need a constitutional convention to bring reform-minded people together to work out systematic solutions, not the bit-by-bit approach we have seen for the last two decades. I'm very interested, for example, in what has been happening in Ireland, with a convention that brings together members of the general public and politicians, advised by experts, to discuss fundamental issues. 

 

7.   The outcome of the election coupled with political events in Scotland over the past year, calls for further devolution, pressure from English MPs for "EVEL"as well as pressure to withdraw from European Institutions and the HRA debate, is increasingly making a mess of the UK's already messy Constitution. How would you respond to the UK's constitutional crisis?   

 

Norman Lamb:

Britain needs a Constitutional Convention, bringing together people across political boundaries with figures from civil society, business, and faiths to reach consensus on a new constitutional settlement for the United Kingdom.  Liberal Democrats have always led the way on devolution and federalism, and we must lead the way on this.  For me, it is crucial that this settlement recognises that different communities will want to devolve power in different ways - there must be no top down solution imposed from Whitehall.  

Britain is the most centralised country in Europe - apart from Malta - in terms of where taxes are raised, and that dictates where the power lies. We need a federal solution with radical devolution of tax raising powers.

 

8.   Have you considered whether the International/UN covenant on social, cultural and economic rights should be brought into UK law

 

Tim Farron:

I want us to campaign against economic, social and cultural inequality wherever we find it. I'm a bit wary, however, of putting political decisions about the allocation of massive public resources into the hands of judges. Some rights are better protected by democratic politics than by an unelected judiciary. I'm not against putting minimum standards into law but I'm not a fan of constitutionalising the whole of politics or using the law for purely symbolic purposes.

I know that the more gradual 'progressive realisation' approach to this issue is being implemented in South Africa, though I gather that even there it has run into the sand a bit recently and I'd like to learn more before committing to it.

 

8.   Have you considered whether the International/UN covenant on social, cultural and economic rights should be brought into UK law? 

 

Norman Lamb:

The ICESCR already has some force in the UK as an international treaty, which is binding on us in international law.  But while I suspect that a proportion of people in principle would be open to the concept of an international right to treatment within a national health service or a right to be housed, I am not sure that there is a very good Liberal Democrat case for - in effect - surrendering more control from Parliament on a whole range of social and economic issues to the EU.  My approach would focus on giving local communities more power to make decisions themselves about how they fund and deliver services, to meet local needs effectively.  This issue should be looked at carefully in the context of a Constitutional Convention looking at the way we devolve power across the country.  I therefore fear that, whilst in some ways attractive, introducing the ICESCR into domestic law would therefore be a retrograde step.

 

9.   As leader, are there any particular areas of law reform that you would like to promote - e.g. tenancy law, mental health detention, drugs, consumer or tax law etc?

 

Tim Farron:

Drugs law certainly needs a complete overhaul. It needs to start from John Stuart Mill's harm principle, not Daily Mail-inspired moral panics. No one should be criminalised just for possessing drugs and we should be looking at ways of moving towards the legalisation of cannabis. People who are addicted need medical help not punishment.

In an age in which the barriers between time at work and time not at work are breaking down and employers are becoming increasingly intrusive, we also need to recast much of company law and employment law to allow us to bring in a sense of democracy and civil liberty at work. It's an old Liberal theme, but one we need to get back to.

 

 

9.   As leader, are there any particular areas of law reform that you would like to promote - e.g. tenancy law, mental health detention, drugs, consumer or tax law etc? 

 

Norman Lamb:

The number of people suffering from mental ill health who end up in the police cells at a moment of crisis, is an outrage, and I made this a priority as a minister.  We set a target across the country to reduce the number of people put in a police cell as a "place of safety" during a mental health crisis by 50% - which we have now achieved through concerted local efforts.  We now need to end this completely, and I want to campaign to make sure this happens.  I also introduced a national scheme to identify those with mental heath problems coming into contact with any aspect of the criminal justice system - making sure they got access to treatment, and where appropriate diverting them away from prosecution and imprisonment completely.  I would want to make sure the roll-out of this system is completed properly, and hold local services to account for their performance.  

We published a Green Paper proposing new rights for those with mental ill health and those with a learning disability or autism - including proposed reforms to the Mental Health Act. I'm determined to hold this Government to account to legislate for these rights.

On drugs, I have spoken out recently to make the case for legalisation and regulation of cannabis, taking it out of the hands of criminal gangs and taxing it heavily - denying criminals a massive income every year, and raising money to invest in education and rehabilitation treatment.  There is a clear case for this, following in the steps of states like Colorado which have already legalised Cannabis in the USA.  As a father myself, I don't want my children - or anyone else - to take drugs where there is any risk to health but I don't want them criminalised. We have to accept the simple fact that our current 'war on drugs' is simply not working.  There is also an immense hypocrisy in the way that so many young middle class people have tried drugs, but we laugh this off as a youthful indiscretion, while others will have their entire careers blighted by a criminal record simply because they got caught.

 

10.  Describe what would be your approach towards Government and politicians' relationship with and regulation of the independent legal professions?  And how as leader would you wish to conduct your relationship with the LDLA as an SAO and Party's organisation for lawyers? 

 

Tim Farron:

All professions in the end have to be subject to some degree of regulation in the public interest. It is in the nature of professional services that lay clients are often not in a position to distinguish good service from bad and so have no choice but to put their trust in the professional. But regulation in the public interest should be achieved in a way that as far as possible recognises that the vast majority of professionals not only do a conscientious job but also demand high standards of their fellow professionals. I also recognise that in the case of the legal professions an additional factor comes into play that it is inevitable that lawyers sometimes come into conflict with the state, so that direct control of the profession by politicians is a potential threat to freedom.

As far as LDLA is concerned, I'd be very happy to listen to your views on all the issues you are interested in and would welcome your ideas and criticism. I'm not a lawyer myself and welcome all the help I can get - and have very much appreciated your advice in the past!

 

10.  Describe what would be your approach towards Government and politicians' relationship with and regulation of the independent legal professions?  And how as leader would you wish to conduct your relationship with the LDLA as an SAO and Party's organisation for lawyers?  

 

Norman Lamb:

Politicians have to be willing to listen to the professionals who work at the frontline and understand what effect our laws and public services have for the people who rely on them.  As a lawyer many years ago, I led the national campaign to challenge the MoD over the discriminatory dismissal of thousands of servicewomen simply for becoming pregnant - and we won compensation.  Having worked on the other side of the fence, I know very well how important it is to make use of the professional knowledge and experience that is available.  As health minister, I worked hard to put this approach into practice, always listening to the doctors and nurses who wanted to have a say over the way that services were provided, not simply accepting the advice I received from officials.  At the recent NHS Confederation Annual Conference (bringing together professionals and key figures from NHS services across the country) I received a big round of applause for my work - despite not being present myself!  

I would want to take the same approach as leader.

 

 

 

Graham Colley - Chair LDLA

Chair@LibDemlawyers.org.uk

@ChairLDLA

27 Gun Tower Mews Rochester Kent ME1 3GU

www.libdemlawyers.org.uk