The demo – organised by the Justice Alliance – marked an unprecedented walk-out by thousands of criminal lawyers at courts all over England and Wales over the cuts.
Speaking at the demo, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, Nigel Lithman QC, said the ‘strike’ had the backing of almost every barristers’ chambers in the country and accused the government of ‘fabricating’ figures on the average barrister’s earnings to support the cuts.
Justice Alliance co-founder and criminal defence solicitor Matt Foot told the demo that today was ‘a historic day’. ‘Never before in history have barristers and solicitors come out nationally across the country and refused to work in the courts,’ he said.
Foot accused the justice secretary, Chris Grayling, of ‘tearing up’ the very principles on which the welfare state is based. ‘He is closing the doors of the courts for access to all,’ he said. ‘Access will be denied to the most vulnerable: children, the disabled, asylum seekers, the homeless, prisoners. No one is too low for him to close the doors of the courts to.’
No justice, no peace
Arguing not only that the cuts are ‘undemocratic’, because ‘no one supports them’, but also that they do not have a mandate following the Liberal Democrats’ near-unanimous vote to stay the proposals at party conference last year, Foot said: ‘they must be halted.’
Foot concluded by telling attendees at the demo that they ought to draw their inspiration for 2014 from Archbishop Welby, who said that this year people should try to emulate Nelson Mandela:
‘I’m not calling for an armed struggle. But I am calling for resistance and today is a start. If Grayling doesn’t listen, we’ll be back here again. Enough is enough. No justice, no peace.’
Patrick Maguire, the youngest member of miscarriage of justice victims the Maguire Seven, told the demo that the first contact he had with legal aid was when he was just thirteen years old, after being arrested for his supposed involvement in terrorism offences. ‘Thank God for legal aid,’ said Maguire. ‘We are just a working class family and we were being accused of these terrible crimes that we had absolutely nothing to do with.’
Without legal aid, he and his family would still be in prison today, said Maguire, before warning of the increase in miscarriages of justice if the proposed cuts go ahead.
Human rights solicitor Louise Christian issued a similar warning about the increase in miscarriages of justice that will occur at the hands of the proposed cuts. ‘These cuts, and the cuts to civil legal aid, mean that people without money don’t have access to the courts,’ Christian told LegalVoice. ‘Every advance that I’ve seen throughout my legal career is now being set back,’ she said.
Diane Abbott, Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (pictured left), told the demo that Britain needs a justice system that is ‘free for all.’ Encouraging attendees to persist with their campaign against the cuts, she said:
‘I do not say that our legal system is perfect; I do not say that all lawyers are perfect, but time and time again legally aided lawyers have been able to get justice for people of all communities. That’s why we have to keep up with this campaign.’
Diane Abbott MP
Janis Sharp, whose son Gary McKinnon fought extradition to the US over computer-hacking charges, said that ‘without legal aid, we’re lost.’ Sharp told the demo that she had ‘no doubt’ that, without legal aid lawyers fighting to keep him in the country, her son would have ‘taken his own life rather than be taken in chains to the US and removed from his home, his family and all he has ever known.’
Sharp urged the government to do a ‘u-turn’ on its proposals, arguing that it would not be ‘shameful’ to do so. ‘It’s a fact that you have to listen to people and there are so many people speaking out against the cuts that they have to listen,’ she said.
‘Financial aid is vital to the work of the English legal system’ said Ben Bowling, Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at King’s College London School of Law and founding member of Stop Watch. He continued: ‘It enables people on low incomes to get the legal assistance they need to protect their freedoms, to protect their homes and their jobs.
‘Legal aid is what enables people who are not wealthy to hold their families together, it’s what keeps innocent people out of prison; it’s what enables the abused to face their abusers…. We must stand up for legal aid. We must stand up for justice.’
Professor Ben Bowling
Echoing Bowling’s sentiments, human rights solicitor at Deighton Pierce Glynn, Sue Willman warned that the cuts will hurt ‘the poorest and the weakest and the most vulnerable people in the UK.‘ They will affect ‘the people with the fewest rights and the most need for representation’, she added. ‘That is why we still need to try to stop the legal aid cuts.’
A radical government
Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, told the demo that ‘we’ve got the most radical government since 1945 but not in a good way.’ Blaming the cuts to legal aid for prisoners on political ideology rather than financial need, Crook said: ‘The cuts to legal aid for prisoners are very short-sighted. They will cause more chaos and they will cost more money in the long run.’
Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party, was optimistic about the success of the campaign against the legal aid cuts, telling attendees at the demo that ‘you’ve got a big battle on your hands but I’m confident you’re going to win.’
Ian Lawrence, General Secretary of the probation and family courts union NAPO, was equally encouraging in his message to the crowd. ‘You know your fight is right; you know we can win,’ he said.
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