Wednesday 12 June 2013

Cuts to LegalAid present serious threat to democratic protections

Defend Justice, defend legal aid.

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.
Image ©Pennie Quinton
Bianca Jagger: "Will MOJ be known as Ministry of Injustice?"

Image ©Pennie Quinton 
Bianca Jagger: Founder and Chair of the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation:
demanded justice not be a supermarket.
She told how during her divorce to Mick Jagger she had had no money to cover legal fees but despite being a foreigner because of UK legal aid was able to negotiate for her rights. She said:-”the ministry of justice will need to be renamed the ministry of injustice” Under Justice Minister Chris Graylings new proposals the residency test will exclude all migrants including those seeking asylum and those human trafficked to the UK from entitlement to legal aid.

Image ©Pennie Quinton
Geoffrey Robertson QC speaking at 4th June Protest – Ministry of Justice ended by attacking the government's “hidden agenda”: which aims to make it easier for itself to act unlawfully, without proper scrutiny or redress.

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Dinah Rose QC of Blackstone Chambers: “This is not just about the high profile cases that make headlines. Every year, legal aid helps thousands of people who have been wrongly threatened with eviction from their homes by a local authority, or unlawfully detained by the state. The changes that are proposed will make it impossible for many of these people to access any legal help at all.”

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James Welch, Legal Director for Liberty, said: “The savage attacks on our proud traditions of open, equal justice keep on coming. These proposals will eviscerate the legal aid scheme.... The unprincipled residency test for civil legal aid will create an underclass uniquely vulnerable to neglect and abuse. Squeezing out decent criminal practitioners will drive down standards and inevitably lead to miscarriages of justice. Meanwhile the Government protects itself from effective challenge by restricting legal aid for judicial review.”

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Martha Spurrier, Public Law Project: "if these proposals go through, cases these will no longer be heard. The weak and the poor will no longer be able to challenge the state for these wrongs we know take place. This is not about lawyers' self-interest. This is about government self-interest. Do you think that the government don't have lawyers? You bet they do. They have the most expensive and experienced lawyers around. Do if anyone tells you people can still access justice because people can do these cases on their own, that is wrong. There is no access to justice without access to a lawyer. Reforms based on lies cannot be tolerated."

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Nick Armstrong, Matrix Chambers -"we came here in sunshine. We now find ourselves in the shadow of the ministry of justice. We live in difficult times, but when we are in difficult times, when things become financially tight and we find ourselves in times if austerity, when politics become a little bit more protective, that is when you need your minimum protections, that is when you need your rule of law, that is when you must stand by it."

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Michael Fordham QC: “The avocado of justice”.
In an impassioned and angry speech, Michael Fordham asked if the Government thought the Justice system was an avocado soft and easy to cut. On asking the demonstration what the building behind him was called: as the crowd cried out the Ministry of Justice, he shouted through the megaphone over their voices “The ministry of wankers.”

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Grayling recently interviewed by the Law Society Gazette was given a fair opportunity to put across his views,
and did so, explaining that quality would be ‘absolutely essential’
he dismissed concerns that large companies with other MoJ contracts, such as Serco and G4S, will get contracts as ‘scare stories’ circulated by opponents of the reforms.
When asked about the proposal to remove client choice, he was less polished:
‘I don’t believe that most people who find themselves in our criminal justice system are great connoisseurs of legal skills. We know the people in our prisons and who come into our courts often come from the most difficult and challenged backgrounds.’
Such an opinion is startling, and demonstrative of the elitism for which the Conservatives are known.
Is the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice really suggesting that clients are not bright enough to exercise a freedom of choice over who they want to represent them?
This was picked up on Twitter and, unsurprisingly, not well received.
The hashtag #toothicktopick caught on very quickly.
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.
Image ©Pennie Quinton
Defend justice defend legal aid. 
 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:]

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 defendants lawyer terminating 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
Image ©Pennie Quinton
One man fleeing persecution addressed the crowd: asking whether the MOJ would be responsible for his death if he was sent back to his country of origin, where he already faced torture and persecution.
 His placard is of Ugandan asylum seeker & Movement for Justice activist  Jackie Nanyonjo who died in Uganda as a result of injuries inflicted by Home Office engaged security guards from who deported Jackie from the UK on the 10th January 2013
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 yet further slashing of the legal aid budget which 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”.



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.

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