Meet the Book Author: Justice in a Time of Austerity 

Daniel Newman, Cardiff University

In our Meet the Book Author Series, the Journal of Law and Society and the Centre of Law and Society provide first-hand accounts from authors who have recently contributed notable socio-legal books to their respective fields. In this post, we hear from Daniel Newman from Cardiff University, who has recently co-authored a book for Bristol University Press (2021) entitled Justice in a Time of Austerity: Stories from a System in Crisis.

What is this book about? 

In my work, I try to understand how people experience the justice system. I am especially interested in giving voice to those who are marginalised by society and can suffer at the hands of the state.

The book is about the functioning of access to justice in England and Wales. It explores the impact of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 – otherwise known as, LASPO – on social welfare law. 

LASPO was part of the coalition government’s austerity programme and made the biggest cuts to legal aid since it was introduced in the Legal Aid and Advice Act 1949. Public funding was removed for welfare benefits, housing (except with a risk of homelessness), employment, family law (unless there is evidence of domestic violence), and immigration and asylum.

All that remains of social welfare law are the bits that could not be removed because of the protections afforded by the European Convention on Human Rights. The legal aid scheme is a shadow of its former self – and it was never all it could be in the first place so that means access to justice is seriously under threat.

Why did I write it?

I wanted to explore these cuts to social welfare because, so often, debates around legal aid focus on the crisis in the criminal justice system. The Secret Barrister has brought attention to criminal justice and people increasingly understand that the access to criminal justice is being gutted.

Defence solicitors, for example, have not had a pay raise for over two decades and had an 8.75% fee cut imposed on them in 2014. As I write, criminal barristers are on strike following an inadequate pay offer from the Ministry of Justice.

Cuts to criminal legal aid are important – indeed, I had spent most of my career previous writing about how they affect those suspected and accused of crimes. But I was concerned that there was another – potentially bigger – crisis in the justice system getting less attention so, when offered the chance for research leave, I set about looking to capture what was going on in social welfare law. 

What was my research strategy?

From the outset, I wanted this project to reach an audience outside of academia, influence wider debates and get people talking about the issues. I had always written for the press and given interviews but I realised that, it’s one thing coming up with a neat one-liner quote or penning a pithy 800-word comment piece, quite another making a whole book accessible.

I wanted to find someone who knew how to pitch a story in a way that would get attention, to write in a manner that could have impact. I approached Jon Robins, an investigative journalist who I knew for his incredible work on the flaws in the criminal justice system – why didn’t we break new ground together looking at what was going wrong in social welfare law?

We set about a series of case studies – looking at access to justice on the ground in locations up and down England and Wales. We spent time in large cities, small towns, rural areas, always trying to piece together the variety of experiences into a broader understand of what access to justice meant in practice.

We figured that many of the people we wanted to speak to would never see a lawyer such is the perilous state of legal aid: it is possible to be poor and not qualify for legal aid under the restrictive means test that exists. Even if someone was eligible, the chances of finding a legal aid lawyer are increasingly remote such has been the devastating impact of LASPO on the sector.

So early on, we decided that we would not constrain ourselves to speaking with lawyers. We looked across the advice sector but also beyond, in any location where people could conceivably go if they were struggling or might need help such as churches, homeless shelters, food banks, MP’s surgeries or social clubs.

Between the two of us, we conducted over two hundred interviews. It was the depth of the insight and the power of the stories that gives this book its strength.

I hope the book conveys something of the precarious reality of access to justice today and, if it does, that is because we listened to those on the frontline and going through problems. This book is supposed to empower to people who are all too often ignored – that is why I do my research, and that is why I wanted to study access to justice after LASPO.  

Read more about Justice in a Time of Austerity in Jacqueline Kinghan’s book review for the Spring 2022 Issue of the Journal of Law Society.

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