Cuts to Legal aid present serious threat to democratic protections.
June 4 brought two rare sights to central London: a beautiful sunny afternoon and the extraordinary spectacle of 1000 lawyers blocking 102 Petty France outside the Ministry of Justice and refusing to move at police request.
The demonstration took place outside the Ministry of Justice to coincide with the deadline for consulting on the new legal aid proposals, organised by staff at Wilson Solicitors LLP it brought together charities, legal experts, academics and people in need of legal aid from across the country.
Midnight of June 4 was the closing date for the UK Governments consultation “transforming Legal aid”Lawyers of all stripes from across the UK have called on the public to respond to the governments consultation, saying that Midnight June 4 was the last chance to save UK Justice.
[Ministry of Justice consultation is available at: https://consult.justice.gov.uk/digital-communications/transforming-legal-aid]
Anxiety over the Governments proposal was apparent in the expressions of the assembled Heads of Charities and leading legal figures at the demonstration.
They outlined the devastating impact to justice if the coalition government implements its plans to slash the legal aid budget by instigating 'a cut price inferior service in its stead'.
Legal aid was part of the 1948 settlement to make the UK a better and fairer place after world war two.
Michael Hanley, Senior Partner at Wilson Solicitors LLP, said:
"Excluding the most vulnerable in society from legal aid will put the state and public authorities beyond judicial scrutiny – unlawful decisions affecting fundamental human rights will be made with impunity and social cohesion will be severely strained."
Justice Minister Chris Grayling’s proposals draconian attacks on ordinary people’s access to justice in the UK. include:
- Cutting the number of criminal legal aid law firms from 1,600 currently to just 400.
- The removal of choice of legal aid defence lawyer in criminal cases with the state appointing the defendents lawyer removing the principle of independence from the justice process.
- Cutting legal aid for people in prison
- Cutting funding for judicial review challenges against public authorities, immunising the government from challenge.
- The introduction of a discriminatory residence test which will leave thousands of migrants, returning British citizens and babies under one year old without access to legal assistance, even in the most serious cases such as care proceedings, child abduction and homelessness
Legal aid supports thousands of the poorest and most vulnerable people in Britain to access fair decisions in the courts. But the government’s ‘Transforming legal aid’ consultation proposes still further slashing of the legal aid budget, and will force thousands more people into legal limbo.
Speakers at the demonstration included the Queen Councils' Geoffrey Robertson QC, Dinah Rose QC, Mike Fordham QC and Stephen Knafler QC, as well as leading human rights charities Liberty, Reprieve, Freedom from Torture and Kids Company.
The event was endorsed by organisations from Amnesty International to small grassroots groups, along with top law firms and chambers. Bianca Jagger, Founder and Chair of the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation. Andy Slaughter MP, shadow justice minister, and David Lammy MP also joined the demonstration to show their support.
In a statement to be read out at the demonstration, Mike Mansfield QC, who has represented the families of Stephen Lawrence, Jean-Charles de Menezes and the victims of Bloody Sunday, said:
“None of this is primarily about lawyers, although they are affected. It is about a basic provision, justice, the very substance of what is left of our democracy. No fundamental rights are worth the paper they are written upon unless they can be enforced, especially against overweening and corruptive authorities.
“There has been, with small exceptions, an intransigence and almost dismissive contempt by government towards the plight of the citizen.”
The new tranche of proposed legal aid cuts has already been heavily criticised, including by The Children’s Society which is concerned that thousands of children will be “left without a voice and right of redress”, and by Sir Anthony Hooper, retired High Court judge, who warned that “These reforms will be absolutely devastating for the justice system as we know it. They will lead to many problems, certainly to miscarriages of justice”.
See http://m.guardian.co.uk/law/2013/jun/02/residency-tests-migrant-children?CMP=twt_fd and http://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/400770/Top-judge-warns-Government-s-legal-aid-reforms-could-bring-meltdown.
Geoffrey Robertson QC's speech at the demonstration outside of the Ministry of Justice referred to the days of the “dock brief” and of what Lord Justice of Appeal, Stephen Sedley QC called the “great sleep” of public law in the middle of the 20th century – before legal aid was created.
Geoffrey Robertson ended by attacking the government’s “hidden agenda”: which aims to make it easier for itself to act unlawfully, without proper scrutiny or redress.
As an alternative to removing access to justice for the vulnerable Geoffrey Robertson proposed that better off households might have to make substantial contributions to criminal legal aid, rather than being denied it altogether; suggesting cutting more from silks’ fees. He observed how Trident the UK controversial nuclear submarine programme, was worth 45 years of legal aid. http://soundcloud.com/carlgardner