I thought I was dreaming when I switched on my radio this morning.
Three pinches and a cold shower later and I knew it was true: a legal aid issue was the headline new story on Five Live (the baby prefers Nicky Campbell to John Humphries). Not only that, but it was sympathetic – even broadly supportive – of the views of lawyers.
There was the mother of Alfie Meadows, giving her story of how legal aid lawyers went far beyond the call of duty to bring justice for her son. It was heartfelt and very persuasive.
The national coverage of protests against plans for price-competitive tendering for criminal legal aid is just another symptom of the bandwagon effect of the outstanding ‘no’ campaign.
Hundreds of lawyers have taken to Westminster today with placards and noisy protests. Actresses such as Emma Thompson and Joanna Lumley, plus Blur drummer Dave Rowntree (himself now a qualified solicitor) have spoken out in recent days. Even footballer Joey Barton, himself no stranger to the workings of the courtroom, was lending his support on Twitter this morning.
The hashtags #LAdemo and #saveukjustice have been almost omnipresent on my Twitter timeline, giving a sense of how this campaign has, most importantly, got the nation talking. And yet I can’t help but feel a sense of sadness at the scale and success of the movement.
Not, for one second, because it doesn’t have merit – I fail to see how encouraging legal services providers to race to the bottom will preserve justice.
But where was this spirit, this rebelliousness – this outrage – a year ago when the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) was edging its way to finality?
This was the brutal act of parliament that in one swoop almost entirely cut legal aid for all civil cases. The poorest in our society were no longer entitled to fight for justice without enormous and prohibitive personal expense.
Campaigners talk of fighting off a two-tier system in criminal legal aid, but this is essentially what we now have for civil cases. The truth is the protest against LASPO was simply not powerful, united, sustained or persuasive enough to make any difference.
It was swatted off easily by the government as self-interested lawyers protecting every feather in their nest, and the public (those that had even heard of the act) were happy to go along with it. A mild level of dissent on 1 April was about as much as the government had to face.
Where were the marches on Westminster a year ago? Where were the celebs trying to save legal aid for those who needed it most? Why wasn’t the legal profession as angry in May 2012 as it is today?
Of course, the insurance industry, which lurked behind most of LASPO, was a formidable opponent, both in ensuring positive media coverage and gaining the ear of government. The big difference today is protestors have a single cause and a single bogeyman in Chris Grayling, the embattled justice secretary.
But it remains strange to me that victims of clinical negligence are considered less worthy of legal aid than someone suspected of a crime. Society should have a duty to ensure justice for both, surely?
Congratulations should go to everyone involved in today’s march – make no mistake, it will have been noted by those inside parliament.
The legal profession has learnt how to unite and make its voice heard. It’s just a shame it required the mistakes of the LASPO campaign to make it happen.
John Hyde is a Gazette reporter
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