Grayling Day

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This article appears this month in the LCCSA magazine The Advocate

The courts are empty of lawyers. At Westminster, Old Palace Yard is overflowing with them. Barristers and solicitors are spilling out into the road. Bemused tourists stop and take pictures of the English men and women, some in wigs and gowns, shouting on a grey Friday morning in March. This is where the action is.

There is poetry. There is jazz. Oh, and there is a massive effigy of Chris Grayling. Indeed, the day is dominated, literally and figuratively, by the odd, unsettling presence of the Lord Chancellor.

On indictment

Greg Foxsmith begins proceedings with an indictment of Grayling for conspiracy to destroy the criminal justice system. The huge pink face of the defendant remains impassive. The witnesses for the prosecution are many.

Paul Harris is passionate: “The justice system is in meltdown! This is about unfettered access to justice. The government is reducing the accountability of the state and increasing power over the individual.” Criticising restrictions on judicial review to challenge unlawful state action, he tears into Grayling for refusing to talk to the National Justice Committee. “We won’t stand by and watch you destroy the criminal justice system,” he tells the defendant. “The Ministry of Justice is not fit for purpose! Justice on the cheap is not justice!” The crowd loudly approves.

From over the road in the Houses of Parliament,  Black Rod asks for the lawyer gang not to make quite so much noise. Black Rod is given some free legal advice. The lawyer gang make more noise. Chris Grayling’s great claw sways in the breeze, insouciantly dismissing the “Grayling Must Go” banners. Maxine Peake is posing for photos in the crowd. “I’m here because I’m filled with dread and fear of what this government is doing to the weak and the dispossessed in this country,” says the actress from the TV drama, Silk.

Chair of the Criminal Bar Association, Nigel Lithman QC, is up. “It takes centuries and much sacrifice for democracies and justice systems to emerge,” he says. “It’s taking this government the blink of an eye to demolish it. We will be left with  one law for the rich and one for the poor! The MoJ is inept!” The evidence is stacking up.

Speech after speech

Shadow Lord Chancellor, Sadiq Khan, takes to the stage. He says Grayling is a woeful mix of blind ambition and wilful ignorance and is the most legally illiterate Lord Chancellor in history. “Chris Grayling believes that the Magna Carta is a bottle of champagne,” he says. “I am with you!” he cries. “We will defeat them!”

Even the Tories are piling in now. Ivan Lawrence QC, 23 years a Conservative MP, says he is ashamed of this government. “I’ve been at the Bar for 50 years and I have never seen a demonstration like this. We will make this government frightened of our resolve. We must make them know if they don’t stop savage cuts they will not be re-elected.” More cheers.

Veteran solicitor Alured Darlington is in the crowd and agrees there’s been nothing like this before in his 51 years of practice. The crowd is getting bigger.

Banners and signs appear. “Keep Calm And Call The Duty Solicitor” says one.

The mother of Gary McKinnon, Janis Sharp, is on the stage. “One day, it could be you needing a lawyer,” she says. “You’ve no idea the relief when a lawyer says they will take your case without asking how much money have you got.”

Now it’s Liberty’s Shami Chakrabarti. “This is Grayling’s day of shame,” she says. “The government are constitutional vandals!” CLSA chair Bill Waddington is scathing too. “It took 800 years to build this system,” he tells Grayling. “Leave it alone!” The swollen head of Chris Grayling looks on, his preternatural smirk undisturbed by the strength of the case against him.

Birmingham Six defendant Paddy Hill is on the attack. “It wasn’t us who caused the financial crisis, it was them and their banker mates,” he yells pointing at Parliament behind him. Now it’s Dave Rowntree. “The government is creating a separate McJustice system for the poor,” he says. Ian Lawrence of NAPO says there must be no privatisation of the probation service. Grayling’s got form he says. “He’s a repeat offender!” he blurts out.

The closing speech is delivered by solicitor Matt Foot, son of journalist Paul Foot and great-grandson of Liberal minister and campaigner for legal rights Isaac Foot. “This is an ideological attack,” he says. “Grayling is picking on the most vulnerable.” He calls for more action. The crowd agree. It’s poetry time. “Rise like lions after slumber!” he exhorts.

On the march

Keep calm and call the duty solicitor

Stirred by Shelley, the crowd are on the move, ready to take the fight to the Ministry of Justice. The defendant is secured and heads the march like a terrifying Pied Piper alongside the golden Lady Justice. The jazz band is up and playing, and with their hypnotic accompaniment, we’re off towards Petty France, the Justice Alliance banner leading the way. We stop off at the Liberal Democrat headquarters to drop off a love letter to Simon Hughes, the justice minister. “Simon Hughes, shame on you!” we yell happily.

The march snakes back along the length of Storey Street, lawyers as far as the eye can see. The throng eventually masses outside the Ministry of Justice. An official is popping out for lunch. “Ooh look! It’s a giant Chris Grayling,” she says to her friend. “Quite flattering actually,” she adds.

There is excitement. What will happen next? (The possible criminal liability of a peaceful occupation of the Ministry of Justice goes through a thousand legal brains simultaneously like an old exam question. “Explain what criminal offences have been committed, if any, making reference to mens rea and actus reus.”)

We settle for some old-fashioned well-mannered chanting. “Legal Aid must stay, Grayling must go!” A cry goes up: “Bring me the massive head of Chris Grayling!”

Lady Justice accompanies Paddy Hill inside to  deliver a letter to the real Chris Grayling, who declines to make an appearance. The press photographers bundle through the double doors. It’s all a squash. The security guards are tolerant until the gigantic effigy of the Lord Chancellor tries to get in too. To the amusement of the MoJ officials, the Lord Chancellor  is barred from entering. Outside, the crowd shout “Grayling Grayling Grayling, out out out!”  “Let him in! Grayling in!” is the cry from inside. Now the immense pink head of Chris Grayling is jammed in the doorway of the Ministry of Justice, a sight few would wish to relive.

Central Hall

The chants continue. As no-one can think of a way of pithily shouting, “They say cutback, we say we are prepared to sit down with you to outline a series of savings that can be found across the criminal justice system,” the crowd disperses to reassemble in the Methodist Central Hall for the LCCSA training afternoon, where president Nicola Hill is pleased with the day so far. “The turnout today has been fantastic. We will gather momentum and I hope Chris Grayling will now man up and stop these cuts.”

As Jon Black introduces the speakers, the glowering figure of the Lord Chancellor stares defiantly back upon the assembled delegates. Unperturbed, Richard Atkinson sets out the full horror of Grayling’s reform. “We are peering into the abyss,” he says. The future? A black void appears on the screen. Richard Furlong of 25 Bedford Row advocates the withdrawal of solicitor’s goodwill from the court system. Richard Bentwood of Argent Chambers sets out the “no returns” policy.

The lawyers on the panel in the afternoon are united. Greg Powell graphically tells us that solicitors will be “nipple to nipple” with barristers in the fight to come. “Grayling has to understand that, when we say something, we mean it,” says Nigel Lithman. Disappointingly, he wasn’t talking about the nipples thing. Bill Waddington says there will be no cracks in unity, a message echoed by Aika Stephenson of Just For Kids and Raj Chada of Hodge Jones and Allen. In January, the courts were closed for half a day. Today, the courts are closed for a full day. To applause, Raj Chada calls for a three-day action next time, and advises Shadow Justice Minister Andy Slaughter to listen to the people in the hall. “Together we will forge unity,” he says.

As people are leaving, Matt Foot surveys the day’s work and is uplifted. “It’s been a wonderful day, there was nowhere left to stand this morning, and the march to the Ministry of Justice filled up the whole road.  Solicitors and barristers are very serious about the fight with Grayling.”

Shelley’s The Mask of Anarchy:

Rise like Lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you

Ye are many – they are few.

 

‘A shameful day in legal history’

‘These newly confirmed cuts are a short-cut to a two-tier system, where justice becomes a luxury not a right. This can’t be right for any defendant, whose liberty, family and livelihood are often at stake.’  Nicola Hill, LCCSA president.

More

Protest:

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Solicitors to join barristers in January walkout

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(Reblogged from Legal Voice)

Thousands of legal aid solicitors across the country will join barristers in a mass walkout on 6 January in protest against the government’s proposed further cuts to legal aid, writes Mary-Rachel McCabe.

The London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association (LCCSA) and Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association (CLSA) announced on Friday that they would be joining criminal barristers on a morning of ‘non-attendance’ in courts, following a vote by criminal defence solicitors from all over England and Wales at a meeting in Birmingham on Thursday.

The vote means that both Crown and magistrates’ courts will be affected by the protest, which will take place on the first working day after the Christmas break.

Read the rest in Legal Voice

The Importance of Law Centres

I am very pleased to have joined the management committee of Camden Community Law Centre.

I am re-posting my article about Law Centres which previously appeared at The Justice Gap.

Many solicitors firms and chambers influential in criminal defence in the last few decades were founded by lawyers who cut their teeth in the Law Centre movement.

It’s no exaggeration to say that a legal revolution began when the doors of the first Law Centre in Britain opened in an unprepossessing part of West London. Legal aid had been available since 1949, but by 1970 there were few legal practices in rundown areas and few lawyers who acted in housing, welfare rights, employment, discrimination or matrimonial disputes for poor and disadvantaged clients.

The North Kensington Law Centre in Golborne Road was founded by a group of radical young lawyers who believed that access to justice should be provided in the heart of communities and set out to change the way lawyers did business. Dozens of Law Centres were soon set up across the country.

At the same time there was an important shift in the way criminal defence lawyers worked.

In the 1970s the prospects for the average suspect arrested and held at a police station were pretty bleak. There was then no legal aid available for solicitors to attend suspects in police custody and there was little chance of getting a solicitor out to see you at night unless you were paying for the privilege.

Peter Kandler, co-founder of North Kensington Law Centre, was one of the first to go to police stations to represent clients around the clock. ‘Solicitors were not paid to go to the police station at all in those days, so only the very rich or very villainous ever had lawyers in the police station,’ says Kandler today. ‘Beatings and frame-ups were the norm and there was lots of corruption. At places like Notting Dale police station local people could literally hear the screams of suspects being beaten up inside. Police officers weren’t too happy to see me when I started turning up to represent my clients.’

Avon & Bristol Law Centre

Greg Powell is a veteran of Brent Law Centre. ‘There was tremendous difficulty getting into see our clients,’ he says. ‘We were still working under the old Judge’s Rules. We often had to ask the police to hand a letter to our client offering our services.’

The long battle to secure the right to legal advice in police stations had begun. ‘I believe that what we did helped change the way society thought about the sort of protection people should have in a police station, and we helped lots of innocent people,’ says Peter Kandler.

Eventually there was a Royal Commission on criminal procedure, and the Police and Criminal Evidence Act followed in 1984. The duty solicitor scheme came soon after.

Michael Turner QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association, another figure to have emerged from the North Kensington Law Centre, thinks Law Centres changed the system. ‘The new generation of lawyers got established solicitors thinking about how to represent their clients properly and pushed solicitors who had been strictly open nine to five to provide a 24 hour service. Before that if you were arrested in the middle of the night you were simply not represented. The Law Centre gave solicitors a conscience about what they could do for the community.’

Michael Turner is just one of many prominent lawyers to have roots in the Law Centre movement. Tony Gifford, another co-founder of the North Kensington Law Centre, and now Head of Chambers at 1 Mitre Court, represented defendants in the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six appeals. James Saunders, another early member of North Kensington Law Centre established Saunders & Co. Michael Mansfield QC, head of Tooks Chambers, helped set up Tottenham Law Centre. John Hendy QC, a distinguished defender of trade union causes founded the Newham Rights Centre in East London. Greg Powell is still the managing partner of Powell Spencer after more than thirty years.

Lip service
Today there are more than fifty Law Centres across the country, but many are struggling financially. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) promises to cut civil legal aid drastically for much of social welfare law, potentially devastating for Law Centres for whom a significant proportion of funding comes from legal aid.

Many take the view that LASPO is an assault on the long established idea that publicly funded legal services and the right to representation and equality of access should sit alongside the NHS, education, social security and housing as an important part of a fair society and that the cuts to legal aid are taking us back in time to where we were before Law Centres stepped in.

‘The government is paying only lip service to the principle of providing the safety nets people need,’ says Michael Mansfield. ‘Neighbourhood Law Centres provided a place which was welcoming and understanding, tackling issues on behalf of the ordinary person who didn’t have access to resources,’ he says.  ’These legal aid cuts are a disaster. The reality is that Law Centres could become victims of a financial crisis of which they are not the author.’

It’s not just civil legal aid under assault – fees in crime have taken a battering in recent times too. Many worry that the creep towards telephone advice only in the police stage will have a damaging effect at a critical stage in the process. ‘The government today don’t care about what happens to ordinary people in that sort of hostile environment,’ says Peter Kandler. ‘I think the changes we are seeing now are monstrous and are taking us back to where we were decades ago.’

Paddington Law Centre

Michael Mansfield agrees the idea is dangerous. ‘The police station is the crucial point at which defendants first engage with the system, and it’s the moment they simply must have access in person to qualified and able lawyers, especially as the onus is shifting towards the defence to prove innocence,’ he says.

So what effect will this attack on legal aid have? Will the cuts inspire a new generation of politically inspired lawyer? Or will the financial restraints prove too much of a deterrent, diverting good young lawyers away from legal aid work?

‘The talented young political lawyer is still with us, but it’s so much harder to make a living with graduated fees and one case one fee on the horizon,’ says Michael Turner.

‘The need for radical lawyers is now greater than ever,’ says Michael Mansfield. ‘They need to be out there in the community at the forefront fighting exploitation.’

What began in North Kensington Law Centre revolutionised the way law is practised and Law Centres remain an important part of their communities. As cuts threaten legal aid and access to legal services they may be needed more than ever. A new generation of radical young lawyers with consciences will be needed too.