Lawyers and justice campaigners in England and Wales have pledged to continue their struggle against the UK government's 'destruction' of legal aid.
Hundreds joined a demonstration against the proposed cuts outside the Ministry of Justice’s headquarters in London earlier this week.
The protest was organised by trainees at Tottenham firm Wilson Solicitors. It signalled the climax of a campaign timed to coincide with the government's eight-week consultation on plans to cut £220 million from the criminal legal aid budget through what the Law Gazette described yesterday (5 June 2013) as "price-competitive tendering, removal of client choice, the introduction of a 12-month residence test and a £37,500 disposable income threshold."
The Ministry of Justice has now been overwhelmed by 13,000 responses to its 'Transforming Legal Aid' consultation, but Secretary of State Chris Grayling has made it clear that he intends to ignore criticism from the best-informed quarters.
He even suggested that the choice was slashing the £1 billion criminal legal aid budget or the £109 billion NHS budget - an idea that health campaigners and economists described as "ludicrous" and "illiterate".
They point out that the government has found money for tax cuts for the very rich, is doing little to tackle massive tax avoidance among the wealthiest, has weakened the economy through its austerity policies, plans to waste billions on Trident replacement, and has opposed a financial transaction tax being rolled out across other parts of Europe.
"These cuts in legal justice are not necessary, they are ideological", one lawyer told Ekklesia. "They will measurably harm access to justice and specialist advice for the most vulnerable groups in society. The government is simply in denial. Either that or, as many suspect, it really doesn't care and thinks it can get away with it because the public has been fed on a diet of 'fat cat lawyer' stories. If they saw my working hours and income in relation to social welfare cases they would think again, I hope."
Speakers at the London protest included representatives of children’s charities the Children’s Society and Kids Company, human rights groups Liberty, Reprieve and Freedom from Torture, in addition to MPs, leading QCs, and a successful asylum seeker who said that his own life had been spared through the availability of legal aid.
There was repeated condemnation of the government’s "chaotic", "shameful", "unfair", "flawed", "unworkable" and "unjust’" proposals that "would not only hit some of the most vulnerable in society hardest, but would harm the whole of society, damaging the rule of law and the reputation of the British justice system".
Eminent QCs, solicitors, barristers and court interpreters joined chants of ‘Stop the raid on legal aid’, ‘Chris Grayling shame on you’ and ‘Justice for rich and poor, equality before the law’, reported The Law Gazette.
Reprieve legal director Kat Craig told protesters: "If we have to strike then we should strike. If we don’t we’ll look back at today as the day UK justice died."
A statement read out from Haldane Society president and leading lawyer Michael Mansfield QC strongly contested the "mischievous" accusation that the legal profession’s opposition was due to self-interest.
He declared: "‘None of this is primarily about lawyers... it is about basic provision, justice, the very substance of what is left of our democracy."
Dinah Rose QC of Blackstone Chambers said she was concerned by the "sheer ignominy" of the proposals and the "reckless’" way the government was seeking to introduce them.
The legal director for Liberty, James Welch, said: "Squeezing out decent criminal practitioners will drive down standards and inevitably led to miscarriages of justice. Meanwhile the government protects itself from the effective challenge by restricting legal aid for judicial review."
The chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, Habib Rahman, added that the proposals will "impoverish justice". He urged the government to think again and said if not it would be "judged by history" and "condemned".
At the end of the demonstration, Wilson’s senior partner Michael Hanley declared: ‘We’re looking at complete collapse of access to justice for the poor, which is unacceptable in modern society."
* Law Gazette: www.lawgazette.co.uk/
* Haldane Society: http://www.haldane.org/
* Reprieve: www.reprieve.org.uk/