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