The Ministry of Justice has received 13,000 responses to its Transforming Legal Aid consultation, it confirmed yesterday, as hundreds of lawyers demonstrated against the proposed cuts outside the ministry’s headquarters in London.
The protest, organised by trainees at Tottenham firm Wilson Solicitors, marked the end of the eight-week consultation on plans to cut £220m from the criminal legal aid budget through price-competitive tendering, removal of client choice, the introduction of a 12-month residence test and a £37,500 disposable income threshold.
Speakers addressing the demonstration included representatives of children’s charities the Children’s Society and Kids Company, human rights groups Liberty, Reprieve and Freedom from Torture, as well as MPs, leading QCs and a successful asylum seeker who said his life had been saved through the availability of legal aid.
Speaker after speaker condemned the government’s ‘shameful’, ‘unfair’, ‘unworkable’ and ‘unjust’ proposals that they said would not only hit some of the most vulnerable in society hardest, but would harm the whole of society, damaging the rule of law and the reputation of the British justice system.
Side by side members of the Socialist Workers Party, eminent silks, solicitors, barristers and court interpreters chanted ‘Stop the raid on legal aid’, ‘Chris Grayling shame on you’ and ‘Justice for rich and poor, equality before the law’.
Barrister and Haldane Society member Anna Morris said the government is ‘ideologically committed to the destruction of the welfare state’, of which legal aid is part.
She said there should be a united campaign to take direct action, ‘striking if necessary’. Her comments were echoed by Reprieve’s legal director Kat Craig: ‘If we have to strike then we should strike. If we don’t we’ll look back at today as the day UK justice died and these bastards destroyed it.’
In a statement read out from Haldane Society president Michael Mansfield QC, he rebutted the accusation that the legal profession’s opposition was due to self interest.
‘None of this is primarily about lawyers... it is about basic provision, justice, the very substance of what is left of our democracy,’ he said.
Dinah Rose QC of Blackstone Chambers, who does not do criminal legal aid work, said she was concerned by the ‘sheer ignominy’ of the proposals and the ‘reckless’ way the government seeks to introduce them.
Demanding such huge changes in such a short time frame, without any evidence to suggest they will work and without any contingency plan, Rose said the government ‘fails the most basic test of good administration’.
Legal director for Liberty, James Welch, highlighted the imbalance that will be created between the government and its citizens.
‘Squeezing out decent criminal practitioners will drive down standards and inevitably led to miscarriages of justice. Meanwhile the government protects itself from the effective challenge by restricting legal aid for judicial review,’ he said.
Shadow justice minister Andy Slaughter MP said the government regarded cutting legal aid as a ‘positive’ thing because it does not think that the same quality of legal service should be available to the poor as to itself.
The chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants Habib Rahman said the proposals will ‘impoverish justice and he urged the ministry to think again, saying that if it did not, it would be ‘judged by history’ and condemned.
Closing the demonstration, Wilson’s senior partner Michael Hanley said: ‘We’re looking at complete collapse of access to justice for the poor, which is unacceptable in modern society.’
He urged politicians to hear the message that ‘what is happening is wholly wrong.’
Meanwhile, in an article published in last night’s Evening Standard newspaper Grayling suggested that the government had a choice between cutting £220m from the £1bn criminal legal aid budget or from the £109bn NHS budget.
He acknowledged the opposition saying that the ‘legal profession has been in overdrive in the last few days’. But he claimed their ‘evocative and creative’ arguments were either untrue or a ‘tiny bit over the top’.
Grayling maintained that everyone, except those on the highest incomes, will still get legal aid and will have a ‘barrister’ of their choice to represent them in court. He said: ‘It’s tough for the lawyers concerned. No one likes to go through change, particularly when it can affect their own incomes.’