Over 500 lawyers attended a mass rally at parliament today to protest over criminal legal aid reforms which ‘strike a dagger through the British justice system’.
Gerry Conlon, one of the Guildford Four and Breeda Power, daughter of one of the Birmingham Six, were also present to warn of the threat of miscarriages of justice arising from the plans.
The demonstration, organised by the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association (LCCSA), was addressed by members of all the main parties – with speakers including shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan, shadow attorney general Emily Thornberry, former Conservative MP Jerry Hayes, leader of the Green Party Natalie Bennett and Alistair Webster QC, from the Association of Liberal Lawyers.
‘Mourners’ carried a coffin emblazoned with ‘RIP legal aid’ to the front of the protest. A minute’s silence was observed before the speakers addressed the rally.
Dave Rowntree, former drummer with Blur and now criminal solicitor at Kingsley Napley, told the assembly: ‘What [justice secretary Chris] Grayling wants is McJustice – big faceless corporations providing crap justice on the cheap. Quality will take a nosedive as firms compete purely on price.’
Grayling’s comments in last week’s Gazette interview, when he said that criminal clients are not the best connoisseurs of legal services, were ‘bizarre’ and ‘arrogant’, said Rowntree.
He added: ‘People can pick their own plumber, their own doctor and even their own MP, but Grayling says they are too stupid to pick their own lawyer. It shows how out of touch he is.’
Sadiq Khan said Grayling’s ‘obsession with throwing red meat to Tory backbenchers and appearing on the front page of the Mail on Sunday’ had resulted in proposals that will destroy legal aid and lead to miscarriages of justice.
‘There should be justice for all, not just for the rich,’ he said.
Highlighting the importance of dedicated legal aid lawyers, Gerry Conlon said: ‘Without legal aid me, the Birmingham Six and the Maguires would still be in prison.’
Fearful of tendering proposals that could see companies like haulage firm Eddie Stobart provide criminal lawyers, Conlon warned: ‘If the likes of Stobart get a contract, they’ll be sending people to jail by the lorry load.’
Breeda Power, daughter of Billy Power, was gravely concerned about the plans to remove client choice. In her father’s case, she said that ‘one of the biggest issues’ was not being able to change their solicitor.
‘The MoJ proposals to allocate lawyers have an uncanny resemblance’ to his situation, she added and ‘greatly heighten’ the risk of miscarriages of justice.
Harriet Wistrich, partner at Birnberg Peirce & Partners, represented the family of Jean Charles de Menezes, the man shot dead by police at Stockwell tube station after being misidentified as a terror suspect. She highlighted the harm to vulnerable victims that will be caused by the ‘discriminatory, unworkable and probably unlawful’ residence test.
She said there will be ‘a total denial of justice for anyone who doesn’t meet it’, which will be a ‘huge loss’ to the British public, as such cases hold the police and others to account for their actions.
Echoing Conlon, Patricia de Silva, cousin of de Menezes, told the rally: ‘We could not have fought for justice for Jean without legal aid.’
Barrister and Labour peer Helena Kennedy QC warned that the proposals would lead to the ‘Americanisation’ of the British justice system, creating a public defender system with lawyers chosen by the state from a ‘supermarket’ of providers.
Barrister Courtney Griffiths QC spoke to highlight the impact that the changes will have on the number of ethnic minority lawyers in the profession, warning that the public’s confidence in lawyers and in the justice system would decline, if they could not see people like themselves in it.
Condemning the proposals, former LCCSA president Greg Powell told the Gazette: ‘It’s an appalling attempt to turn clients into commodities – they’ll end up being processed at the cheapest possible price in a system where they are denied all choice.’
Choice, he said, produces trust: ‘When suspects are given unpalatable advice it is easier to accept if they trust the person giving it to them.’ Grayling’s comments that suspects are ‘too thick to pick’ are ‘patronising and arrogant’.
‘It betrays his title as justice secretary – he should be concerned with administering justice to everyone.’
He said the reforms will result in a ‘plunge in quality’ with many people left unrepresented, greater inefficiencies and more people being sent to jail.
Powell suggested that instead of cutting £220m from the criminal legal aid budget, there were savings that the MoJ could make elsewhere.
He added: ‘This government seems able to find the money for projects in which it has an interest, like High Speed 2 [rail link], guaranteeing mortgages and Trident. I just wish it had as great an interest in the justice system.’
Although they have the potential to radically change the criminal justice system, the reforms are not being debated in parliament – a move that shadow attorney general Emily Thornberry told the Gazette is ‘deliberate and cynical, manipulative and undemocratic’.
- Visit our photo gallery of the protest