This is my talk to Highgate Labour Party on 13 November 2012
Cuts to Legal Aid and their effect on communities
I’ve worked as a criminal defence solicitor and advocate for nearly twenty years. Over that time I’ve represented every type of client from drink driving at Highbury Corner Magistrates court to murders at the Old Bailey.
I’ve done just about everything there is to do from representing clients at Kentish Town police station in the middle of the night to standing up in wig and gown at Wood Green Crown Court doing a trial in front of a jury.
But I have to admit that telling people that I’m a criminal defence lawyer is usually a very efficient way of bringing conversations to a swift conclusion.
It’s either that or I get pinned to the wall at parties by people asking me how do I cope with having to defend clients who are accused of nasty crimes and who are obviously guilty.
I usually tell them that my pay packet is a great consolation.
But there is a serious answer and that’s what I’m going to talk about.
You all know about the big miscarriages of justice of the past, the Guildford 4, the Birmingham 6, Sally Clark, Angela Cannings. They all had lawyers who worked for years to prove their innocence.
Access to legal advice and representation is vital. The Lawrence family got justice eventually with the help of their lawyers. It took Hillsborough families decades to get close to justice.
I have to tell you that what is happening now in criminal law, restricting the cases where Legal Aid is available and restricting access to lawyers in the police station, is in danger of creating more and more injustice.
Vulnerable people who don’t get Legal Aid are convicted; others prefer to plead guilty to get cases out of the way; some who are forced to pay are pleading guilty simply because it’s cheaper…
These are miscarriages of justice too, and it will only get worse. There will be more miscarriages ahead, have no doubt about that, particularly as more than ever the onus shifts to the defendant to prove his or her innocence.
Summary of Legal Aid cuts
But criminal law is not the only area where the danger of injustice lurks. Cuts to Legal Aid in other areas are just around the corner.
The worst cuts are the result of the recent Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO).
This Act cuts civil Legal Aid quite drastically for much of social welfare law. £350m will be taken out of the budget and Legal Aid will go for almost 600,000 cases a year.
The areas worst affected are large chunks of family law, welfare, and housing.
In my view the removal of these areas from Legal Aid will lead to a serious denial of access to justice for many of society’s most vulnerable individuals including children and victims of domestic violence.
And these cuts are potentially devastating for Law Centres and law firms who rely heavily on Legal Aid.
Legal Aid had been going since 1949. You could think of Legal Aid as being part of the post war welfare state consensus alongside the NHS, education, social security and housing.
It was recognised that the right to representation was important in a fair society.
It took a few years to really take off. By 1970 there were still only a few Legal Aid practices in rundown areas and not many lawyers who specialised in housing and welfare advice.
Then came the Law Centres. The first law centre in Britain opened in North Kensington as you may know, founded by a group of radical young lawyers who did a lot of pioneering work in areas of law most relevant to poor and disadvantaged clients such as housing, discrimination, matrimonial, employment and welfare rights.
The Law Centres were established on the radical idea that access to justice should be provided in the heart of communities.
It’s been said that The Law Centre movement gave solicitors a conscience about what they could do for the community.
Many solicitors firms and chambers were founded by lawyers who began their careers in law centres. Some of the outstanding lawyers around now cut their teeth in the Law Centre movement.
Michael Mansfield helped set up Tottenham Law Centre. Paul Boateng and Harriet Harman both were involved back then.
So over the last 40 years, the Legal Aid system developed in parallel with the expansion of Law Centres and Citizens Advice Bureaux to help people with problems like divorce or disability or losing a job or benefits claims or eviction or discrimination or family debt.
Today there are thousands of solicitors and barristers in law practices and Law Centres across the country who share a common ethos, setting out to confront inequality and injustice in their communities.
There are literally thousands of examples of vulnerable people for whom access to Legal Aid had saved their lives from complete ruin. Every day individuals are up against more powerful opponents: take your pick from landlords, employers, government departments, violent partners.
Cutting £350m from the Legal Aid budget places all that in danger.
Housing and welfare advice
As a result of these changes it will be much harder for people to get advice on welfare benefits and in housing cases.
You can put that in the context of the cap on benefits, the changes to council tax benefit, and the arrival of the universal credit.
According to the Child Poverty Action Group up to 63,000 households with children will be unable to pay their rent as a result of the reforms.
I already have families at the school worried about having to uproot their children and ending up in faraway places.
It’s not clear how the government expects people with no legal knowledge to negotiate the complex nature of welfare benefit law and to swot up on thousands of pages of guidance from the Department of Work and Pensions.
Some wonder whether it’s a calculated policy by this government that just as universal credit comes in, with the inevitable large number of wrong decisions, Legal Aid will just have been abolished. It’s almost as if this government is in the business of punishing the vulnerable and the poorest…
Then we are going to have the worrying prospect of people with other legal problems going through a ‘Telephone gateway’ to speak to people who are not legally qualified to see if they even qualify for Legal Aid.
I can tell you from experience that many clients often call up and do not know exactly what their legal problem is and can’t easily describe it.
The danger is that this will leave vulnerable people without access to legal advice or completely lost in emergencies.
There is a real danger of injustice if for instance a disabled parent cannot access welfare benefit or housing advice; no one knows about it, the person and the problem remain invisible, homes are lost, families break up.
The great concern in family law is that women who have suffered domestic abuse won’t be able to access Legal Aid unless they can prove they are the victims of domestic abuse.
Oh and by the way they have to pay for the medical reports themselves. And if they haven’t reported it to police and made a statement then forget it.
The obvious danger in these new rules is that victims are left unprotected and that eligibility for family law Legal Aid will still exclude potentially thousands of victims of domestic violence.
I know from my own practice that plenty of domestic abuse victims are too scared to tell police what’s going on and even if they do they don’t come to court to give evidence.
Again I’m afraid the danger is that justice will go missing. And thousands of women will continue to suffer as a result of the Government’s plans to cut Legal Aid.
The fact is that cuts to Legal Aid only make it less likely that they will get help and will leave vulnerable women at risk.
The effect of cuts
The Government says that cuts to the Legal Aid system are a great saving to the taxpayer.
Research on this demonstrates that the financial case for the cuts is wonky and counterproductive as most of the savings will be wiped out by the resulting social and economic burden.
Meanwhile the neighbourhood law centres set up to solve these sorts of problems are closing.
We’re going back in time.
In my judgment we are witnessing an appalling assault on publicly funded legal services.
Access to justice is the safety net our system of provides for ordinary people.
There has to be recognition that everyone is entitled to the protection of the law.
The real worry is that the cuts to Legal Aid are taking us back in time to where we were before the law centres stepped in, that all this is an attack on the long established idea that publicly funded legal services should sit alongside the NHS, education and housing as part of the state’s support of the individual.
This government is creating what some call an austerity justice system, but the problem is it hits the poorest and most disadvantaged in our society hardest.
The government is absolutely indifferent to these principles and particularly indifferent to the idea that it is the state’s responsibility to guarantee equality before the law.
So there’s the answer to why lawyers do what they do, and to how I can represent my clients whatever they’ve done.
It’s actually to do with the importance of access to justice.
It’s about fairness.
It’s about living in a civilised society.
It’s about giving people a voice.
We are entering a period in which access to justice will be restricted or withdrawn across many areas of law.
One of the post war pillars of a fairer state is under attack and what we will see is not a saving to the public purse but instead many many injustices across the country.