Legal aid campaigners are to step up the pressure on government by holding marches across the country tomorrow in protest at the legal aid reforms to be outlined in the Justice Bill, expected next week.
The ‘day of action’, organised by Justice for All and supported by the Law Society’s Sound Off for Justice campaign, will see marches in towns and cities across England and Wales, and a rally outside the Supreme Court in London at noon.
Sources indicate that the bill will be published on 8 June.
Gail Emerson, campaigns officer at the Citizens Advice Bureau, said the response to the call for a day of protest had been ‘overwhelming’.
‘People from Hastings to Sheffield will be voicing their deep concerns over the threats to vital local advice services and government proposals, which would decimate civil legal aid in particular,’ she said.
Some 13,246 people have signed the Society’s Sound Off for Justice petition against the cuts, while celebrities including impressionist Alistair McGowan, actress Bianca Jagger and campaigner Jemima Khan have recorded protest messages for justice secretary Kenneth Clarke as part of the campaign.
Concerns over the content of the Justice Bill mounted last week, following a suggestion that the government may be planning even deeper legal aid cuts after Clarke’s politically maladroit remarks about rape sentencing potentially jeopardised its bid to save money by cutting the prison population.
The government had proposed a 50% sentence reduction for defendants who entered a guilty plea at the earliest opportunity.
However, sources told the Gazette that Legal Services Commission chief executive Carolyn Downs had indicated to some firms that, following the furore over Clarke’s remarks last month about rape, the government was reviewing this money-saving policy, and would be looking to make increased savings elsewhere – including from the £2.1bn legal aid budget, which government already wants to cut by £350m a year.
The remarks were alleged to have been made at two controversial meetings held by the LSC with large providers of legal aid services.
However, LSC sources suggested that the potential for Clarke’s gaffe to affect legal aid funding was not something that Downs had told the meetings, but arose from speculation in leading questions put to the LSC chief executive by providers, on which Downs had in fact refused to commit herself.
At the meetings, Downs is also alleged to have said that the government’s plans for the introduction of best value tendering had been delayed.
She is said to have shared information about the LSC’s future approach to family tendering with the firms present.
Law Society chief executive Desmond Hudson has written to Clarke seeking assurances over the legal aid budget and expressing concern that the meetings could have given an unfair commercial advantage to the firms present.
An LSC spokesman said: ‘The LSC did not organise the recent meetings of large firms in Sheffield and London, but our chief executive Carolyn Downs was invited to speak at them, as the LSC has done in previous years.
'Carolyn agreed to do so as part of our commitment to dialogue with legal aid providers on operational issues. As Carolyn emphasised at both meetings, decisions on policy are entirely a matter for the Ministry of Justice.’
An MoJ spokesman said its responses to the consultation and its proposals would be published ‘shortly’ and that any assumptions about what they may contain are ‘pure speculation’.
See the Sound Off for Justice site.
The LSC has now published the minutes of the meetings here.