‘No fat cats’

Veteran human rights lawyers, campaigners and trade unionists on why legal aid matters

December 12, 2010
5 min read

‘The vital role of legal aid cannot be underestimated in the current climate. More than ever the integrity of the rule of law will be at stake. There will be no mechanism for those of lesser means to benefit from equality before the law without legal aid.

‘The clients I represent are some of the most disenfranchised and powerless in society: children in prison. They need legal aid to make sure that their rights are not completely abused, to make sure that they spend the shortest possible time in custody, to ensure that the parole process works and that they have somewhere safe to live when they come out. Legal aid is crucial in making this happen.

‘Already we are seeing social workers suddenly made redundant or the release packages that are crucial to their safe rehabilitation in the community suddenly not available. This can mean these children’s lives, and taxpayers’ money, are wasted by children spending unnecessary time in jail.’

Laura Janes, solicitor for children at the Howard League for Penal Reform


‘The comprehensive spending review has spelt out a new era where the weakest in our society have now restricted rights. With cuts to local authorities, law centres and citizens advice bureaux are set to lose vital funds that enable them to educate people about their rights. Coupled with the threat that the Ministry of Justice will announce a withdrawal or at the very least a reduction in access to legal aid, and in particular social welfare aid, this means that the voice of the ordinary citizen is being silenced.

‘Enabling all to seek justice is the only way that powerful institutions and people can be held accountable. As our economy is set to enter a renewed phase of recession, as over a million people lose their jobs, their homes and their welfare support, now, more than ever, it is crucial that we start to fight back and salvage legal aid and advice out of the cuts bonfire before the fire is lit.’

Tony Woodley, joint general secretary of Unite


‘The importance of legal aid as a mechanism by which to hold state bodies to account is perhaps most apparent when representing victims of police violence. Where the perpetrator of an offence is a serving police officer, a victim can’t just walk into a police station and report the officer as having committed a crime. Instead, there is a long and arduous complaints process, with investigations conducted by other officers. Appeals are taken to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, a third of whose investigators are former police officers, and complaints are rarely upheld. When complaints are substantiated it is almost unheard of that officers are prosecuted.

‘In these circumstances the only means by which to hold the police to account is by bringing an action in the civil courts. Given these immense and frequently bewildering challenges, the provision of legal aid throughout the process is vital to victims. Shockingly, it was recently revealed that the Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson secretly lobbied the government to place police officers above the law under the guise of saving costs.’

Sarah McSherry, partner at the human rights firm Christian Khan


‘We need to remind ourselves that at the end of the second world war, when much of our infrastructure was destroyed, resources were scarce and debt reached 250 per cent of GDP, it was still possible to construct a vision of social justice – the welfare state. Two of the main pillars were the National Health Service and a national legal welfare service. Since then the NHS has expanded massively with spending in the region of £100 billion (rightly so), whereas legal aid has lagged well behind on under £2 billion per annum.’

Michael Mansfield QC, human rights lawyer


‘The UK has a powerful democracy demonstrated by the combination of our legal system and the unwritten constitutional guarantee that abuses of power by the state will not go unchecked. Judicial review exists to check such abuses. When UK soldiers brutally beat Baha Mousa to death in Iraq, judicial review forced the MoD to hold a public inquiry. That inquiry is examining how it came about that the techniques banned by the Heath government following internment in Northern Ireland (hooding, stress positions, sleep, food and water deprivation etc) came back as standard operating procedure in Iraq.

‘Those and other abuses of power will always remain unchecked if not for the combination of civil legal aid and judicial review. One without the other simply will not work. How could Colonel Mousa, Baha’s father, have afforded to pay his lawyers’ fees and those of the MoD if his case, taken all the way to the House of Lords in June 2007, had lost? Yet it is precisely this threat that we now face.

‘Unnamed sources at the MoJ are putting it about that human rights lawyers are “abusing the system”. What this really means is that there are those in the dark corridors of power at the MoD who have much to lose if the nation learns how many Iraqis were killed or tortured in UK custody.’

Phil Shiner, head of Public Interest Lawyers


‘It is tempting now to think that there was a time when legal aid fulfilled the aspirations of the 1945 Labour government. There has never been a golden age. Legal aid has never been adequately funded and there have always been limits on its scope, which have denied justice to many. Yet access to justice is fundamental to our social well being and access to justice demands a level playing field, which is impossible without legal aid. In the current state of the legal system, cutting legal aid deprives the impecunious of the means to secure their rights under the law.’

Sir Geoffrey Bindman, civil liberties and human rights lawyer


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