Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

No truck with legal aid reform

New government plans would see representation of legal aid recipients handed to firms such as G4S and even trucking company Eddie Stobart, says Danny Chivers

July 8, 2013
4 min read

Lawyers' road block on 4 JuneLawyers’ road block on 4 June. Photo: Defend the Right to Protest

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

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain.’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition.

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones

‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression

Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death

‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum

The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes

Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference

Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki

Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers

Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project

Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it


45