‘There is a battle to be fought’

‘Social welfare law is at the core of the legal aid concept,’ argues the human rights lawyer Michael Mansfied QC. ‘Legal aid is about providing safety nets. We are looking at those people who cannot look after themselves because they haven’t got the wherewithal be that financially, physically or mentally. For that safety net to be withdrawn is simply iniquitous.’ The self-described ‘radical lawyer’ talks to Jon Robins. Mansfield was involved in setting up Tottenham Law Centre and has argued for a tax-funded ‘national legal service’ along the lines of the NHS. He echoes another recent damning assessment of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act 2012: ‘simply wicked’.

Michael Mansfield will chair next month’s LALYs – or Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards. He has been reading through the nominations (which he calls ‘absolutely and overwhelmingly impressive’). ‘Some of them are working in law firms but many are in law centres or different kinds of advice agencies,’ he says. ‘It isn’t just a question of them going the extra mile for their clients – working 14 hour days on a shoestring – but what I think is important is the outreach, going into the community in a way that no other organisations do.’

The silk points to lawyer-led campaigns on behalf of victims of domestic violence or abducted children. ‘They do not do just do the case. They decide there is an issue and that the profile for that issue must be raised. They are legal, moral and political with a small ‘p’. A lot of people are taking them for granted.’

In particular, Mansfield pays tribute to the legal not-for-profit sector, which will bear the brunt of the cuts. Not that he likes the label. ‘I hate these terms. I find the “not-for-profit sector” particularly demeaning,’ Mansfield says. ‘It is as if the criteria for any kind progress is whether you are “for profit” or “not-for-profit”.’

Unequal before the law
Mansfield chaired last year’s Commission of Inquiry into Legal Aid, which took place in the House of Commons in February and was organised by the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers and the Young Legal Aid Lawyers group. The purpose of this event was ‘to examine what kind of safety net our system of publicly-funded law provides for ordinary people, sometimes poor and vulnerable, who rely on it’. The former Lib Dem MP, Dr Evan Harris, the canon of Westminster Abbey, the Rev Nicholas Sagovsky, and Diana Holland, assistant general secretary of the trade union Unite, weighed up evidence from the session. The idea was for a nonpartisan and independent panel to consider the case for (and against) legal aid. All the evidence was published in Unequal before the Law? which was published as part of the JusticeGap series with Solicitors Journal. You can download it HERE.

Michael Mansfield at the Commission of Inquiry into Legal Aid (pic: Ripon Ray)

Clients gave personal testimonies about the value of legal aid in their lives before the non-lawyer panel, including EP, a mother of two and victim of domestic violence, and Zoe Kealey who talked frankly about the painful events that led up to her brother hanging himself in Wormwood Scrubs prison. It was not always a comfortable experience. For example, Mansfield led EP through her account of the trauma of escaping a self-destructive and abusive relationship (‘I was just giving up on life. I did not have the energy or the will to try and sort myself out…’).

As Mansfield wrote earlier this month, such cases were ‘not exotic or esoteric claims’ but ‘the stuff of everyday life pitted against stronger forces: landlords, employers, local authorities, government departments, violent partners, hospitals and education authorities’. ‘The issues are crucial: they relate to disability, benefits claims, discrimination, unfair dismissal, eviction, medical negligence, discrimination, matrimonial disputes, school and college placement, debt, immigration and extradition complexities.’ At present some of these areas of law are ‘barely covered’ by the legal aid scheme, Mansfield argues; and LASPO which comes in next April represents a further ‘extensive and formidable list of exclusions from legal aid’.

A political battle to be fought
The silk describes the opposition to the LAPSO as ‘very meritorious and hard fought’. ‘But at the end of the day the changes made as a result of that opposition were marginal,’ he says; adding ‘that kind of opposition no doubt has to continue’.

‘There is also a political battle to be fought,’ the barrister says. ‘A proper and real target is for this Coalition to implode. There is a feeling among some Lib Dems that they have had enough and, if they are going to survive at all at the next general election, they have to salvage what is left. Putting pressure on those who have consciences within the Lib Dem caucus to withdraw would put David Cameron under enormous pressure.’

The silk is more ambivalent about recent calls for a strike by the criminal Bar (although he recalls making a similar call to London defence lawyers some five years ago). ‘My concern about striking is that at the end of the day there are lives at stake and, yes, I know they say that about nurses. Here we are dealing with cases that involve freedom and loss of liberty. It could be problematic unless the client is on board.’

‘People don’t like to talk about lawyer’s fees but they have been static for 15 years – and then Labour government reduced them by 13% and this lot has reduced it by a further 11%,’ says Mansfield.

‘The public might not know but the criminal Bar is in a very parlous state. This isn’t about fatcat lawyers any more. It is about being able to provide lawyers of some calibre who are able to do the job.’

Mansfield was called to the Bar in 1967. He remembers the end of the ‘dock briefs’ system, the quasi pro bono system that predated legal aid where barristers could be required to defend unrepresented prisoners. ‘Barristers would line up in the front row of the court and the little pocket on the back of the gown was where defendants would lean over and stick a coin for the barrister to do the brief. That was the only way they could get representation. We are now heading back to impecunious situation that I face when I first started all those years ago.’

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