In 1929 my great-grandfather Isaac Foot introduced one of the first legal aid acts in Parliament, the Poor Prisoners Defence Act. He was a solicitor in Plymouth as well as the Liberal MP for Bodmin, and one of his clients, a poor girl, was facing a murder charge with no financial support in the magistrates court. ‘A prisoner who is without means,’ he said, ‘ought to be in no worse position to establish his innocence than a prisoner who is able to pay.’
Stephen Sedley, Francis FitzGibbon and Joanna Biggs have written in the LRB about 'the radical changes currently being made to the legal aid system' and the government's proposals 'to undermine judicial review by starving claimants of legal aid on several fronts'.
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.
The law presents some inconvenient obstacles to the coalition’s series of assaults on the poor. The government is meeting the threat in two ways. When it has no option, it removes legislation that requires it to act as though fairness were more than an advertising slogan. So Harriet Harman’s Equality Act is to be repealed. Much better from the coalition’s point of view, however, is to preserve the form of the law while making sure the poor have no chance to use it.