Statewatch News Online: UK: "The potential death of legal aid": lawyers protest against new government proposals

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"The potential death of legal aid": lawyers protest against new government proposals

As Big Ben chimed for 11 o'clock on the morning of Wednesday 22nd May, hundreds of protesters stood outside parliament and held one minute's silence to mark "the potential death of legal aid." These were the words of the speaker on stage, a representative of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors' Association (LCCSA). The crowd, largely made up of solicitors, barristers and others working in the criminal justice system, had come to make clear their opposition to new government proposals for "transforming legal aid" in criminal cases.

The new proposals, which the government claims will save £220 million per year, would see the introduction of "price competitive tendering" (PCT) and the removal of the right for defendants to choose their solicitor:

"The government wants providers of legal services to tender for contracts to provide legal representation for those accused of criminal offences. In doing so it hopes to reduce the national numbers of criminal legal aid providers from 1,600 to around 400. The contracts will be awarded to those who are able to deliver legal services to the highest number of customers at the lowest cost per unit." [1]

Under the proposals, those arrested and accused of criminal offences would no longer have any choice as to who represents them, with solicitors provided to people based on the area in which their legal proceedings are taking place - contracts will be awarded to cover a particular area or region.

This was described by the first speaker, Dave Rowntree - a solicitor and also drummer for the band Blur - as a proposal for a system "with giant corporations providing crap justice on the cheap."

"Pieces of meat"

Many working in the profession are furious at the proposals. Outside parliament, one solicitor who deals with immigration cases involving closed material proceedings (CMP), in which the defendant is not permitted to know the evidence against them, said that large firms would simply "bid for human beings like commodities."

Gerry Conlon, who spent fifteen years in prison for a crime he didn't commit as part of the Guildford Four, shared this view, saying from the stage that should the proposals pass, firms would "treat clients like pieces of meat."

Conlon recounted how he and the other members of the Guildford Four - who were convicted along with the Maguire Seven for the 1974 Guildford pub bombings - only overturned their convictions with the help of legal aid lawyers. Breda Power, daughter of Billy Power of the Birmingham Six, said the same of her father's case. She said that the proposals "greatly heighten the risk of miscarriages of justice."

Relatives of Jean Charles de Menezes, who was shot and killed by police officers at Stockwell tube station in July 2005, said that "we would not have fought for justice for Jean without legal aid" and that "if we didn't have the system of legal aid and good lawyers, we would never have found out the truth."

"A disproportionate impact"

There was a strong feeling that the proposals will affect poorer people and ethnic minorities the most. "Who's going to suffer?" asked Gerry Conlon. He answered himself: "It's the poor and the working class."

The same point was made by those in the crowd. Sean, a solicitor specialising in criminal defence, said: "It's a class issue. The unemployed, the downtrodden are going to suffer through no fault of their own."

Courtenay Griffiths QC noted that it was likely that the proposals would reverse changes that have taken place over the last three decades, during which solicitors' and barristers' firms have become more racially diverse: "30 years ago when I entered this profession, there weren't many people who looked like me in this job."

Griffiths said that the historical relationship between the black and Muslim communities and the criminal justice system has meant that many people from those communities only trust "lawyers who look like them…These proposals are going to destroy that trust. Small black and brown firms will be the first to disappear."

The government admits as much in its equality impact assessment for the proposals: "To the extent that BAME [Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic] managed firms are more likely to be small, the proposal may have a disproportionate impact on them."

This is justified by the government as "a proportionate means" of lowering "the cost of legal aid, ensuring that we are getting the best deal for the taxpayer and that the system commands the confidence of the public… We consider that price competition is the best way to ensure the long-term sustainability of the criminal legal aid scheme." [2]

Griffiths predicted that, if the proposals come to pass "we're going to have a much more elitist profession" because smaller firms that rely on legal aid work lose out to larger companies and consortiums bidding for government contracts. Firms that have been rumoured to be interested in bidding so far include G4S, Serco, the Cooperative and even Stobart Barristers, a subsidiary of the haulage firm Eddie Stobart.

Lawyers on strike?

Members of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers were present at the protest, handing out leaflets calling for "a 24-hour strike after 22 May, followed by a stepped programme of increasingly intense strike action."

The Society argues that the new proposals "are an ideological attack on the most vulnerable in society and an economic attack on those who fight for their rights…Economic pressure from the government necessitates an economic response, in the form of the collective withdrawal of our services…The government must be stopped in its tracks in its aim to decimate both the legal aid profession and access to justice."

While none of the speakers on stage mentioned strikes, the Haldane Society's leaflets were being well-received by those present. One said that lawyers in other cities such as Manchester had gone on strike in recent times and that those in London should do the same: "desperate times call for desperate measures," he noted.

Other proposed changes

It is not just criminal legal aid that will be affected by the current proposals. They are accompanied by other proposed changes to the system, including, in the words of the Ministry of Justice:

  • Reforms to prison law to ensure that legal aid is not available for matters that do not justify the use of public funds such as treatment issues;
  • A residence test for civil legal aid claimants;
  • Reforms to reduce the use of legal aid to fund weak judicial reviews;
  • Amendments to the civil merits test to prevent the funding of any cases with less than a 50% chance of success. [3]

These come on top of changes already introduced by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which came into force on 1 April 2013 and made cuts to the scope of civil legal aid, removing almost all provision for debt, employment, welfare, family, and non-asylum immigration cases.

The LCCSA is running a campaign against cuts and changes to legal aid provision and is calling on people to respond to the current government consultation on the proposals for further changes.

Further reading

[1] Anna Morris, Cut-Price Justice: The Government’s attack on Legal Aid must be stopped, Ceasefire, 20 May 2013
[2] Ministry of Justice, Transforming legal aid consultation paper Annex K - Equalities Impact
[3] Ministry of Justice, Transforming Legal Aid: Delivering a more credible and efficient system

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