Serious miscarriages of justice will go uncorrected if the government pushes through planned legal aid cuts, a demonstration outside London’s Old Bailey heard.
The rally, organised by the Justice Alliance – a coalition of 30 lawyers and victims groups, charities and unions – was held to mark the 64th anniversary of legal aid and to protest against the proposed cuts. A twin protest took place in Manchester.
Attended by around 300 lawyers, striking court staff and justice campaigners, the venue for the protest was significant. On the spot 22 years ago, the Birmingham six walked free after a third and finally successful appeal against their conviction and life sentences for the Birmingham pub bombings in 1974.
In a message from one of the six, read by Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn, Billy Power said: ‘Had these new proposals been in place during our imprisonment we would never have had our day in court to clear our names or walked free from the Old Bailey.’
He warned: ‘Should the Ministry of Justice’s proposals be implemented, the tireless work of solicitors involved in miscarriages of justice and human rights cases will be severely diminished or totally extinguished leaving no one to take up these cases.’
And said that the proposals to introduce price-competitive tendering for criminal legal aid contracts, so that the ‘lowest bidder in an auction’ represents suspects, will ‘reduce the whole justice system to the lowest common denominator’.
This in turn, he said, will mean the ‘already overstretched’ Criminal Cases Review Commission would be ‘overwhelmed with cases and won’t be able to cope’.
The rally heard from investigative journalist and Panorama reporter Raphael Rowe – convicted in 1990 of murder as part of the M25 Three, but acquitted and released a decade later, who said: ‘I wouldn’t have been released without legal aid.’
Speakers condemned the proposed cuts to legal aid for prisoners, the limits to be placed on public funding for judicial review and the cuts to criminal legal aid.
The mother of a man suffering from Friedreich’s ataxia spoke of the neglect her son had suffered in prison, before he was released with the help of a legal aid lawyer and the mother of a rape victim whose attackers walked free following police blunders. She told how her family would have been unable to hold the police to account without legal aid.
‘If it hadn't been for legal aid, I wouldn't have been able to fight the case at all… we had enough money to live on but not to pay lawyers,’ she said.
Earlier this month, justice secretary Chris Grayling abandoned the government’s plan to remove client choice and promised a second consultation in September on plans to ‘transform’ criminal legal aid.
Addressing the rally, Grayling’s Labour shadow Sadiq Khan accused him of being ‘the most legally illiterate’ lord chancellor in the country’s history.
He vowed to fight the government’s proposals, saying: ‘We have a few months to save legal aid and I’m with you.’
Fellow Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn told the rally of the ‘need to make a lot of noise in September’, but said: ‘We’re in this for the long haul to make sure everyone gets justice.’
Holding a banner that read ‘Be afraid without legal aid’, director of Liberty Shami Chakrabarti signaled her intent to fight the injustice she feared would be perpetrated by the government’s plans.
‘I’m not afraid because this ain’t the end, it hasn’t even started,’ she said.
There were further signs that the legal profession is prepared to get more militant in its opposition to the cuts. Solicitor Matt Foot, one of the event organisers asked: ‘What worked for the suffragettes? – taking direct action.’
And NAPO general secretary Ian Lawrence, condemning the proposed ‘sell-off’ of the 101-year-old probation service, spoke of ‘coordinated strike action by the unions in the summer.
‘Justice is not for profit; it’s ours,’ said Lawrence.
If Chris Grayling thought that bashing lawyers and their vulnerable clients was going to be an easy way to find the savings he is required to, he must surely by now have realised his mistake.
As he and his colleagues at the ministry mull over the details of the revamped consultation to be published in September, he should be aware that come the autumn he will have a fight on his hands.
Catherine Baksi is a reporter on the Gazette
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