A 'vigil for justice' attracted well over 100 lawyers to gather outside the Ministry of Justice's London headquarters last night to declare that it was 'time for justice'. As the sun began to set, passions rose as solicitors and barristers, armed with placards, congregrated outside the ministry's building in Petty France, London, to demand change. The event culminated with the words 'Ministry of Injustice' projected on the department's walls.
Shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon told the crowd that the gathering, organised by the Justice Alliance, and action being taken by criminal barristers in protest against legal aid reforms show that the government 'cannot rest on its laurels'.
Noting that the 40% real-terms budget cut the ministry will suffer over a decade ending in 2020 is more than any other government department, Burgon said: 'This government seems to think of justice as "out of sight, out of mind"'.
So far, 95 chambers have publicly declared their support for action recommended by the Criminal Bar Association over the government's changes to the advocates' graduated fee scheme, declining to take on work with a representative order dated 1 April onwards. Chris Henley QC, CBA vice-chair, said a 'stable, civilised, democratic society requires a high-quality justice system where rights are protected, trials are fair and the punishment is humane. The time for justice is now.'
Katherine Barnes, co-chair of the Young Legal Aid Lawyers group, said court closures meant people being forced to travel miles to their nearest court only to discover the toilets do not work - as Barnes, a public law barrister at Francis Taylor Building in London said she personally experienced yesterday.
Barnes said the justice system 'does not operate in a vacuum. It requires skilled and professional solicitors and barristers to work in it - we are the petrol that keeps the engine running. Rights cannot be properly upheld without this fuel'.
She added: 'The justice system in this country is already gasping for breath. Unless there is serious investment and radical changes it will die.'
Last night's event was a further demonstration that lawyers have reached the end of their tether over the government's attitude towards the justice system.
As well as the action being taken by criminal barristers, the Law Society is taking the ministry to the High Court over changes to the litigators' graduated fee scheme. The ministry also faces High Court action from the Law Centres Network over changes to the Housing Possession Court Duty Scheme (HPCDS). The network says the changes, which are due to come into force this autumn, will make it harder for people facing eviction to access justice.