We all need legal aid
At one point on Monday night, during a meeting at the LSE about the government’s new proposals for legal aid, the lights went out. It went dark as Steve Hynes of the Legal Action Group was speaking about the justice minister, Chris Grayling, and Hynes’s quip – ‘Oh God, does Grayling control the lights as well?’ – brought one of the only genuine laughs of the night (the others were bitter). Grayling was invited to the meeting but didn’t make it, as far as I could tell. It didn’t matter. He was on everyone’s minds anyway.
When I wrote about legal aid being cut for civil cases 18 months ago, the lawyers I spoke to were despondent. The mood on Monday began as composed-angry, moved to bewildered-angry, and ended up as angry-angry. Things have got a great deal worse since 2011. Criminal legal aid was left untouched in the first round of cuts, to stop unfair trials; Grayling has changed that. In order to save £220 million a year (0.002 per cent of the deficit), no one who’s arrested will be able to choose their own lawyer (and you might get stuck with an Eddie Stobart lawyer or a Sainsbury’s lawyer or an AA lawyer); if you haven’t lived in the UK for a year you won’t be allowed legal aid (this includes people who have lived here for years but have a foreign passport, children trafficked to the UK and people detained by British troops overseas); judicial reviews will be made all but impossible (‘what a boon that is’ to the government, Conor Gearty said on Monday); and prisoners won’t be able to get legal aid (to get access to mother and baby units or, and this is where we enter into Grayling’s thoughts, the vote). Francis FitzGibbon will be writing about the restrictions in a future issue of the LRB.
Frances Crook of the Howard League for Penal Reform told me last week that they will no longer be able to act on behalf of children coming out of the penal system, who are often dumped in Travelodges by their local authorities. The Howard League fights to ensure local authorities carry out their obligations to house, educate and look after released young offenders. The reforms are not only cruel and unworkable, they are needlessly expensive. Some money now on helping to keep someone from reoffending, or a lifetime in prison at £37,000 a year.
One of the strangest aspects of Monday night’s meeting was watching lawyers talking to each other, feeling guilty about the circularity of the conversation and apologising. Lawyers feel under attack: they are told they are greedy and encourage litigation. If they speak up for their vulnerable clients, that’s only because the changes to legal aid mean they’ll lose their livelihood, too. But, as Polly Glynn of Deighton Pierce Glynn said, legal aid lawyers earn less than primary school teachers.
A lot of different people spoke from the floor: a police station rep, someone from the Mary Ward Legal Centre, a mother who’d used legal aid for her disabled son while he was held incommunicado in prison, a trainee barrister. A Bar Council poll published yesterday shows that two-thirds of the public think legal aid is a price worth paying to live in a fair society. And that’s before they’ve been forced to imagine getting caught up with the law. The blogger A Barrister’s Wife wrote about a grandfather who was taken to court for having pictures of his grandchildren playing naked in the paddling pool when he took his computer to be fixed. Anyone can need a lawyer. Nick Armstrong of Matrix quoted Thomas Wolfe: ‘A liberal is a conservative who’s been arrested.’
The civil legal aid cuts were defeated 14 times in the House of Lords before being passed. If you missed the protest outside Downing Street this morning, you can respond to the government consultation, or sign this petition.