It’s not often that you see gangs of angry lawyers blockading roads. But that’s exactly what happened on 4 June, when a crowd of enraged solicitors, barristers and human rights campaigners stopped the traffic outside the Ministry of Justice, in protest at the government’s planned ‘reforms’ to legal aid.
The changes would remove the right of legal aid recipients to choose their own lawyer in criminal cases. Instead, this work would be contracted out to the lowest bidder, with such well-respected legal bodies as G4S and Eddie Stobart Trucks already lining up for a slice of the action.
This stuff matters. I know this from personal experience, because if the proposed new rules had been in effect in 2009, I would have been convicted of a crime that I didn’t commit.
Or, rather, a crime that I never got a chance to commit. I was attending a meeting in 2009, when the doors were smashed in and the building raided by hundreds of police officers. They arrested all 114 of us on suspicion of ‘conspiracy to commit aggravated trespass’. We were accused of planning to shut down the nearby Ratcliffe-on-Soar coal-fired power station, and 26 of us were put forward for trial.
Twenty of our group admitted that they were indeed planning to invade the power station, and ran a ‘justification’ defence because they believed their plans would have prevented a greater crime of significant damage to lives and livelihoods around the world from the station’s copious carbon emissions. The remaining six defendants, including me, were in a different position. We were simply attending a meeting, and hadn’t decided whether to join the action. We were essentially on trial for thinking about taking climate action.
Thank goodness for legal aid. There was no way I could have afforded a lawyer otherwise. Under the current system, we have the right to choose which lawyer we use. This was crucial in our case, as we were able to call on Bindmans, who specialise in protest law. Ironically, this worked out much cheaper for the public purse than the new system would have done, as we were able to be represented collectively by the same company, rather than a selection of local legal firms.
Then, in October 2010, the notorious undercover cop Mark Kennedy was outed by a group of activists. Kennedy was arrested with the rest of us that day (indeed, he was the one who had tipped off his fellow cops and triggered the raid). Thanks to our lawyers’ knowledge and experience in this area, they were able to use this revelation to show that secret evidence from Kennedy that would support our defence was being hidden from the court. As a result, the cases against all 26 of us were ultimately dropped or overturned.
When we think of people fighting for social justice, the legal profession tends not to come first to mind. However, many lawyers choose to work at campaigning law firms in order to defend the rights of protesters, asylum seekers, benefit claimants, victims of police violence and others who would otherwise be disempowered by the legal system. The proposed legal aid reforms would scythe through these specialist firms, replacing them with a one-size-fails-all system of government-approved lawyers. A rise in the number of miscarriages of justice would inevitably follow.
The reforms would also make it harder to launch judicial reviews, introduce a ‘residence test’ for legal aid and cut legal aid funding to victims of mistreatment in prisons. It’s hardly surprising that anyone in the legal profession with a shred of conscience is up in arms.
Laura Janes, consultant solicitor at the Howard League for Penal Reform, says: ‘The kind of prison law and specialist appeal cases that we work on won’t be available for separate tendering, so they will all be swept up in broad legal aid contracts with the likes of Eddie Stobart. This will be devastating for some of the most vulnerable people in society, including thousands of children in prison who will no longer have access to specialist representation, care and rehabilitation under these lowest-common-denominator legal aid contracts.’
The Ministry of Justice is due to make a final decision on the reforms this summer, so now is the time to add your voice to the campaign.
Find out what you can do at www.savelegalaid.co.uk/takeaction
Labour's 1983 election campaign has long been used to say it is impossible for a leader like Jeremy Corbyn to win any election from the left. Alex Nunns digs out the truth
Drax is the UK's biggest source of CO2 emissions – and we're paying for it, writes Almuth Ernsting
For the past 3 years, Barby Asante and members of London-based artists' collective, sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, have been responding directly to the vision of James Baldwin. Ahead of the nationwide release of a new film about the American activist and author, they reflect on the enduring relevance of Baldwin in Britain today.
Housing campaigners' gains in Bristol are spurring on a national movement to build a renters' union, writes Stuart Melvin
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava
It may seem as though these apps are working for us, but we are also working for the apps, writes Kurt Iveson
It's over 100 years ago that domestic workers began to organise to demand the same rights as other workers. Yet with LSE cleaners on strike this week, historian Laura Schwartz asks: how much has really changed?
Omar Barghouti asks whether Donald Trump, in his recent break with America’s long-standing support for the two-state solution, has unwittingly revived the debate about the plausibility, indeed the necessity, of a single, democratic state in historic Palestine?
2 May open meeting for artist-led poster campaign: End Tory Rule
The snap general election represents a unique opportunity to defeat this terrible government. We believe that visual artists have a crucial role to play
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform