MPs came together last night to launch an all-party parliamentary group on legal aid.
The group's aim is to promote parliamentary and public understanding of the role of publicly funded legal services as a pillar of the welfare state and in reducing inequalities in society.
Chaired by Karen Buck, Labour MP for Regent's Park and Kensington North, the group will also scrutinise and seek to influence any proposals for the reform of legal aid provision, to ensure that access to justice for all members of society is preserved and improved.
The event, held in a packed room at the House of Commons, was hosted by the Legal Aid Practitioners Group (LAPG) and Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL).
Buck said: 'Legal aid is key to tackling social exclusion, especially in these hard times. I am looking forward to working with LAPG and YLAL to preserve access to justice for the most vulnerable in society.'
Legal aid minister Lord Bach welcomed the launch, saying: 'I'm slightly surprised to hear there wasn't an all-party group on legal aid, when you think of some of the things there are committees on.'I, or whoever comes after me, will no doubt be dragged before it and be given a hard time,' he added.
Henry Bellingham, shadow legal aid minister, said: 'We haven't had a vehicle in parliament to help us reach the right decisions. Having an all-party legal aid group will be of huge benefit to parliament and the government.'
Louise Christian, founding partner of London firm Christian Khan and chairwoman of Liberty, gave an impassioned speech about what she described as the 'destruction' of the legal aid system by the Labour government. She said opposition MPs had a duty to act to prevent a fundamental threat to democracy.
'We're heading towards a US style of justice where poor people can't get access to good lawyers or justice,' she warned, and urged MPs: 'Please, please save [legal aid]. It'll be a tragedy for democracy if it's finally destroyed.'
Michael Mansfield QC, a legal aid barrister for 42 years, criticised the government's 'short-sighted and completely erroneous' approach of trying to apply the economics of the marketplace to the provision of legal services.
'What we've learnt about the market place is disastrous. The Carter approach in a very fragile economic climate is totally perverse and wrong,' he said.
Mansfield questioned the notion that the £2bn annual legal budget could not be increased, pointing out that the government finds money to spend on wars, the Olympics and on bailing out bankers.
Roy Morgan, LAPG chairman, said he is trying to remain optimistic, even in the face of firm closures.
He said he hoped the group would challenge government robustly and achieve accountability. He suggested it ask three questions when considering new proposals or reforms - what is the impact on the legal aid budget? What is the overall cost to the taxpayer? Is the reform necessary now?