Legal actions can cost users better services

Chris Beckett argues that social services should spend budgets
on provision not lawyers.

Home secretary Jack Straw was branded a “dangerous reactionary”
recently when he complained that lawyers would soon outnumber
police officers. He added that the only thing lawyers could ever
agree about was taking money off their clients.

The home secretary is not a man I would always see eye-to-eye
with by any means, but on this occasion I felt more than a little

Whenever I hear people enthusing about a new piece of
legislation such as the Human Rights Act 1998, the first thing I
always ask myself is: “Yes, but who’s going to pay the extra legal

I heard a lawyer on the radio a while ago outlining her concerns
about new restrictions on legal aid, which would make it more
difficult for community care clients to challenge local authorities
in court if they received an inadequate service. She was a
committed advocate and her concern for her clients was clearly
quite sincere.

But I couldn’t help thinking that services would be more likely
to be improved if public money was spent on actually providing
them, rather than on arguing about them in court.

I asked one local authority recently how much of its children’s
budget went on legal bills in a year. The answer was in the order
of £1 million, a 20th of the total budget.

That is an awful lot of money that could have been spent on
family aides, foster homes, or sponsored playgroup places. We don’t
seem to want to do the arithmetic. We live in a sentimental,
over-individualised, sound-bite sort of world which homes in
excitedly on the single dramatic poignant case, and shuts its eyes
to the wider picture.

Even when their own parents preferred to let nature take its
course, law lords and barristers debated the fate of a single set
of Siamese twins, and 20 doctors toiled together to save the life
of one.

No one seems to ask how many other children could have been
helped or saved if the hundreds of thousands of pounds that must
have been spent on this one case could have been put into less
dramatic services.

People will take issue with this argument, saying that it is
wrong to put a price on such things. But the brutal fact is that
all of us regularly buy inessential things with money that could
otherwise have been spent on preventing abuses and saving

Have you ever worked out how many children could be cured of
leprosy with the money you spent on your last summer holiday – or
even on your last night out? Whether we like to admit it or not,
there is only so much money we are prepared to spend on human
rights and human lives.

That money is precious. We should use it to the best effect, not
blow it on gestures

Chris Beckett is a lecturer in social work at Anglia
Polytechnic University, Cambridge.

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