Roundtable report

Gemma BlytheA roundtable meeting took place yesterday at the House of Commons, speakers included Andy Slaughter MP, Sadiq Khan MP, Emily Thornberry MP, Lord Willy Bach and Jeremy Beecham. Gemma Blythe reports.

Sadiq Khan MP opens the meeting by saying he has just come from Deputy Prime Minister’s Questions. He was asked, by a Backbencher, whether he recognised that having a perverse financial incentive in relation to pleas would lead to miscarriages of justice. He answered: we need to save £220 million, and that Chris Grayling has an “open mind”.

After these proposed cuts, criminal legal aid spending would be £1.5 million.

The MoJ have had an unprecedented amount of responses to the consultation. The MoJ have confirmed that they have received 16,000. [Whether or not they have read them or not is entirely a different matter].

Sadiq Khan gives thanks to those who have led the campaign and those who have been promoting the petition.

He continues to discuss recent developments such as, Grayling’s u-turn on client choice. He says PCT is fixed on providers. There will be a second consultation, and Sadiq Khan thinks this is because he is worried about being challenged.

He also says that the timings of The Law Society’s alternative was naive. We need a good deal.

There will be recess in the House of Commons on 19th July, and in the House of Lords two weeks after. As Grayling is still reviewing responses and considering the consultation, there is no point doing anything until both Houses return in September.

He says we cannot fight without the coalition. We need to get the Tory backbenchers on side, along with the Liberal Democrats. There were 42 MPs who spoke at the Backbenchers Debate and, out of those 42, there were just three who said they were for the MoJ proposals.

These proposals are anti-enterprise, anti-High Street and anti-small businesses. They are in favour of a monopoly and this is why Labour are against it.

Andy Slaughter MP gives the reasons why this meeting was organised. He says ‘we want to find out what is happening, what you think should be happening and why we should be doing’. He continues by saying there will be a debate on 11th July in the House of Lords on the effect of the legal aid cuts on our criminal justice system.

Helen Mountfield QC of Matrix Chambers expressed her concern and anxiety. She deals with judicial review and social welfare and is worried this will mean the end of legal assistance for poor people.

A representative of Citizens Advice asks where Labour are with their thinking and policies as manifesto time is coming.

Sadiq Khan says there may be a motion in September or October but it will have to be worded carefully to get the opposition on side. Tactics will need to be considered.

Maura McGowan QC says that we may have a surprising friend in the Bow Group, the centre right think tank, who she recently done a Radio 4 programme with.

Steve Hynes from Legal Action Group says that whatever the proposals were, the government were always going to get the flack from legal practitioners. He asks what will Labour do if the current government had a similar model, but allowing client choice. What will you do of they pull it out of the bag? Where do you stand? Mr Hynes also says that client choice is a red herring. If you have a choice of 4 firms, that’s not really choice.

Sue James from Hammersmith Law Centre tells the panel what is happening on the ground. People have nowhere to go when they are not eligible for legal aid. She also thinks that we need to engage the press more, and push publicity.

A few others make valid and concerning points, such as the Disability Against Cuts Group, who say that people just cannot get the advice they need anymore. They have nowhere to go because everyone is closed. There are thousands of people going without representation across the country.

Andy Slaughter says all points raised are very helpful. He is clearly making notes and listening. He thinks we need to keep the pressure on and that Grayling’s plans are falling apart.

A representative of Justice Alliance speaks up. He explains that over 20 companies have signed up to show it’s not about lawyers, it’s about basic rights for everyone. He says there are some demos and protests being held on 30th July to show our unity. He continues “the Lib Dems are the weak link”. They are responsible for civil liberties in the coalition, and we need to exploit them.

Steven Hockman QC from Labour Lawyers says that if the Law Society’s alternatives are sound and fair, then Grayling cannot continue to push his proposals. He continues “It is a lie to say that costs are spiralling out of control”. We have seen from the MoJ report that costs are going down.

A representative from the charity, Shelter, says that practicalities of accessing justice have not been thought through. If the Residency Test goes ahead then all those who are entitled to representation will still have to prove they are. This will mean an increase in costs. It will also mean that it will be harder for those entitled to assistance to get it.

Carol Storer of Legal Aid Practitioners Group makes a few very good points: Beware the concession, costs are going down and keep campaigning.

Caoilfhionn Gallagher of Doughty Street Chambers said that having legal aid taken away from borderline cases was poorly reasoned. Borderline cases, whcich she has worked on, have been Tony Nicklinson right to die case and HC case which ruled that 17 year olds should be treated as adults whilst in custody, this involved two teenage boys who died whilst in custody.

The charity, Reprieve, were also represented and discussed their concerns that these cuts will have a detrimental impact on the justice system. They say it is an attempt for the state to immunise themselves.

Young Legal Aid Lawyers suggest a House of Commons Research Paper into Litigants in Person.

Andy Slaughter suggested that arguments and helpful points should be followed up in writing to be reviewed. He gave his website:

Emily Thornberry begins to close the meeting. She thanks everyone for coming, to Andy Slaughter for organising and to all who have been campaigning, which she say has been “outstanding”.

She says Grayling is trying to be manly and show the Prime Minister that he can be firm and make cutbacks. She continues “a great deal of progress has been made, but a great deal more needs to be done.”

Jeremy Beecham says it is worth lobbying the Lords, and says we need to get to the cross-benchers early.

Willy Bach discusses what he thinks may be discussed at HoL’s debate on Thursday 11th July. He says it is a cross-benchers peers debate, and not a party debate. An ex-Supreme Judge will talk about Judicial Review. We need to work with the press, and gain more publicity.

He ends by saying “you may have lost trust, but we have moved on, and we mean what we say. Your fight is our fight.”


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