As lawyers and business leaders attended the controversial Global Law Summit, marking the not quite 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, the Justice Alliance held its own alternative events, with a Relay for Rights starting at Runnymede culminating in a protest outside Parliament.
When Lord Chancellor, Chris Grayling, finished licking the envelopes containing invitations to speak at the Global Law Summit we can feel reasonably certain that there were none addressed to legal aid solicitors. Plenty of invitations were set aside, though, for large city firms, posh chambers, corporations and financial institutions. Jonathan Black, President of the LCCSA wasn’t too surprised that his postie never delivered an invitation to the £1750 per ticket event. “This was nothing less than a business fair, with Grayling using and exploiting the anniversary of Magna Carta to sell UK legal services. Even Dominic Grieve called the event a ‘legal Davos’. That’s why the naughty children like us weren’t invited,” he says.
Black is highly critical of Grayling and the Prime Minister. “It’s all extremely rich of Grayling given his attack on legal aid, the probation service, prisons, and the contempt he’s shown for justice system.” Meanwhile David Cameron, who penned the foreword to the Summit’s glossy brochure, hosted the world’s justice ministers at Downing Street, while pretending the disaster in the justice system on his own doorstep wasn’t happening, Black says.
Justice Alliance campaigner Matt Foot of Birnberg Peirce has also been flicking through the brochure. “Nowhere in their literature or brochure do they mention what Magna Carta actually says: ‘To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.’ I think there’s a good reason for that: the summit had nothing to do with Magna Carta and everything to do with promoting free enterprise and big business.” He points out the double standards where the government has been busy cutting access to justice. “You can’t get a lawyer for employment tribunal cases now, the work in family and housing has been halved, access to courts has been taken away and the quality of criminal defence is going to be decimated under the proposed dual contract and cuts. It is just rank hypocrisy calling this event anything to do with Magna Carta.”
Foot is sceptical about the guest list too. “I see no connection between say Vodafone or BAE Systems and Magna Carta and access to justice. BAE deals armaments around the world, I really don’t understand why they were invited to a celebration of Magna Carta,” he says. Other invitations and attendees at the event also proved contentious. Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti pulled out, saying “My place is with the protestors.” Late invite shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan declined his invitation, “A better way to celebrate Magna Carta’s birthday is defending the rule of law,” he said. Key note speaker Lord Green, late of HSBC, withdrew late in the day for different reasons.
Chair of the CBA, Tony Cross QC, spoke at the event. Many are critical of his decision to attend. “By going there, we are tacitly endorsing what Grayling is doing to the criminal justice system,” said John Cooper QC. Cross disagreed and insisted on delivering his message from the platform. “Turn back from your intended course,” he told the government. Otherwise “you not only risk denying access to justice but also risk turning the Magna Carta into a parchment worthy only of note to historians, instead of the foundation of our freedoms of which we are so proud.”
The summit was beset with other problems. Some have raised eyebrows at the timing of the event, noting that the actual 800 anniversary of Magna Carta falls a few weeks after the general election in May. “The government is rewriting historical dates to make political capital out of a celebration of the rule of law,” says Sarah Forshaw QC.
Others have been critical of the event too. Peter Oborne, newly departed Telegraph writer, eviscerated the government for holding the summit while simultaneously considering a withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights and undermining the rule of law. “Mr Cameron’s government has launched a systematic attack on the legal aid system which gives poor people access to the justice system. There has always been a two-tier system of justice in Britain, one for the poor and one for those who can afford expensive private lawyers. The government changes have widened this divide, and run flatly contrary to Magna Carta,” writes Oborne.
Former DPP turned prospective parliamentary candidate Keir Starmer agrees. “The best way to celebrate Magna Carta is to defend and protect human rights in the 21st Century. For a government hell bent on repealing the Human Rights Act, supporting this Global Law Summit was an act of supreme irony.”
Rhona Friedman, Bindmans solicitor and co-founder of The Justice Alliance, explains how the Not The Global Law Summit came about. “We wanted to point out the hypocrisy of the Ministry of Justice co-hosting a global law summit when they are curtailing the right to hold the state to account for unlawful decision making.” Friedman, who helped to coordinate the Not The Global Law Summit, is passionate about the importance of defending the principles set out in Magna Carta, particularly for the vulnerable who are now being denied legal aid and access to justice and is contemptuous of Grayling’s summit, describing it as “a backslapping corporate jamboree with very little to do with the values of Magna Carta or the rule of law.”
The Relay For Rights began two days before the Global Law Summit with an event at Runnymede, where Magna Carta was signed, before supporters set off for London along the Thames path. Early next morning they were off again, as far as Putney, and on the Monday resumed from St Mary’s Church, scene of the historically significant Putney debates, arriving at Westminster for a rally at which Silks actress Maxine Peake read from Magna Carta itself.
For Jonathan Black, the rally sent an important message to the people at the summit. “The bottom line is we get cuts from the Lord Chancellor while the commercial law sector were given a party which we, the naughty children, weren’t invited to and were told to mind our manners and be quiet,” he says. “Well, we weren’t quiet: we came downstairs and made a lot of noise!”
This article appears in the March 2015 edition of The London Advocate