LEGAL AID BEING DESTROYED – Lawyers rally to defend ‘vital pillar of the Welfare state’

‘Justice with her sword’ stands blindfolded among a crowd of hundreds of legal aid lawyers outside parliament on Monday
‘Justice with her sword’ stands blindfolded among a crowd of hundreds of legal aid lawyers outside parliament on Monday

LAWYERS have vowed to fight government plans that they warn will destroy the legal aid system.

Hundreds of lawyers staged a mass lobby outside the House of Commons despite snow and rain on Monday afternoon, while others went inside to demand their MPs oppose the planned cuts that will bankrupt legal aid firms.

They also handed out leaflets, exclaiming ‘Justice 1066-2007 R.I.P’, which said:

‘Do you know? –

• ‘The Criminal Justice System has been starved of cash and is near collapse

• ‘At the same time this Government wants to make convictions easier to get

• ‘Defence Solicitors are dropping out of the system because they can’t make ends meet

‘Are you happy that?

• ‘If accused of crime and in work with a family there’s a 70% chance you won’t get legal aid

• ‘The Prosecution will always be represented against you, even if you can’t afford a solicitor

• ‘You can be arrested for any offence, including speeding

• ‘Cuts will mean there won’t be enough solicitors to advise you.’

Simon Mumford, vice-president of the Criminal Defence Solicitors Union (CDSU), told News Line: ‘The next step will be an increase in the actions we’ve been taking nationwide – withdrawing services from the magistrates’ courts, police stations, and intensifying our protests against this ridiculousness.’

At the rally outside parliament, Geoffrey Bindman said he had opened a legal aid practice in Kentish Town more than 40 years ago, in 1963.

He said he remained ‘totally committed to legal aid’.

But although he was ‘extremely proud’ that the Legal Aid and Advice Act 1949 was the product of a Labour government, he was ‘extremely disappointed’ at the way legal aid had been undermined by successive Tory and Labour governments.

Payments to legal aid lawyers had been steadily reduced and and eroded.

‘We’re now in a situation where some of my friends in the City simply laugh at the rates paid to legal aid solicitors,’ he said.

‘The imbalance and polarisation in the legal system now is a scandal.

‘The costs of not having adequate representation have not been properly explained,’ he said.

Bindman concluded: ‘It is a fundamental principle of our history that there should be the ability of everyone to have access to justice, regardless of their means.’

Unless the changes were withdrawn, ‘this government will be condemned for having destroyed the justice system which has been built up in this country over one thousand years.

‘If the present flood of lawyers giving up legal aid continues the system will be destroyed.’

Desmond Hudson, chief executive of the Law Society, spoke next.

He said: ‘We care about access to justice regardless of means to pay. It is very clear that this government does not care.’

He continued: ‘An independent legal profession plays a very important role indeed for the fabric of our democracy.

‘Now is the time to say “enough is enough”.

‘We are insulted when the government talks of its measures as being “reforms’’.

‘These cuts serve only one master and that is the Treasury.

‘There is no evidential basis whatsoever for the government’s cuts.’

Hudson said the government was subjecting lawyers to ‘bully-boy tactics’.

He said to loud applause that the Law Society is ‘commencing proceedings with the government to strike down this contract. . . We believe there are serious, serious flaws in the contract that can be attacked.’

He said the implications went far beyond the courtroom, adding that Shelter, the Refugee Council, the NSPCC and many other organisations were supporting the campaign.

‘The government may be deluded it is changing and reforming. We are not,’ he reiterated.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said: ‘This is the cruelest attack on the most vulnerable people in this society.’

She said lawyers had been ‘too polite and self-deprecating’ for too long in a situation where ‘parliamentary democracy is to be dismantled’.

She added: ‘It has taken not just a Labour government, but a Labour government stuffed full of lawyers to dismantle legal aid in this country, a cornerstone of the Welfare State.

‘These ex-commercial barristers in the Labour government call you “fat cats’’!

‘They call the independent work of our judiciary “interference’’ in the dismantling of asylum, social services and a criminal justice system that used to be the envy of the world.’

She called on all the lawyers present to stand up for the principles of ‘access to justice’ and ‘equality before the law’.

She said the rights of the elderly, asylum seekers, children, protesters and many others were at stake, concluding: ‘It is time to get out of the courtroom and onto the streets.’

Human rights solicitor Louise Christian read out a message of ‘wholehearted’ support from top barrister Michael Mansfield.

In his message, Mansfield condemned the ‘unashamedly market-based’ plans of the government.

He said the plight of Neighbourhood Law Centres – with just 60 left across the country – amply demonstrated the disastrous nature of the Blair regime’s policy and he questioned why billions were being spent on the Olympics, replacing Trident and continuing the illegal war on Iraq, at the same time as such drastic cuts in legal aid were being forced through.

Christian said: ‘There are many people I can see here who I know have fought for years to seek justice for vulnerable people.’

She said she had been running a legal aid firm of solicitors herself for 22 years.

She warned: ‘It’s not going to be a case of if individual solicitors are going to take pay cuts, but that those who run legal aid firms will have to consider whether we’re going to be made bankrupt as a result of the government’s proposals.’

She continued: ‘If the people who run firms aren’t prepared to go on running them, then there won’t be jobs for all the dedicated people I can see here today.

‘Lord Carter simply doesn’t understand the legal aid system!

‘He needs to understand the market can build things up, but it can and does also destroy things and the market proposed by Lord Carter will destroy our legal aid system.’

Labour MP Diane Abbott said legal aid lawyers were a vital lifeline to ‘people with more difficulty than most when dealing with the state – whether it’s over housing, whether it’s over welfare, or whether it’s over immigration and nationality.’

She said the government was ‘taking away justice from some of the most marginalised people in our society.

‘This review is entirely driven by the need to cut costs,’ she said.

She said the right of ‘access to justice’ was a pillar of the Welfare State that must ‘not be taken away’, urging Blair to change direction.

She continued: ‘Access to justice is just as important as access to health care, access to education and access to housing.

‘These changes are all about saving money.

‘We could try saving £25 billion by not renewing Trident,’ she said to loud cheers.

Organisers of the rally outside parliament also invited Tory spokesmen and Liberal Democrat MPs to address the crowd.