Yesterday was the 64th anniversary of Legal Aid, which was born at the same time as the Welfare State as an attempt to make everyone equal in having access to justice…
…And yesterday evening, hundreds of people including lawyers, disabled people, refugees, anti Bedroom Tax campaigners and trade unionists, led by the PCS drumming band, marched through Manchester town centre to protest against proposed ConDem Government cuts to Legal Aid that will be the beginning of the end of that right to equal access to justice.
The Government is proposing to bring in cuts to the Legal Aid system which will, effectively, hammer those who most need the `fourth pillar of the Welfare State', by bringing in a residence test for eligibility, eliminating funding for the early stages of judicial review cases, preventing prisoners from bringing treatment cases, cutting fees to experts, and awarding contracts to the cheapest bidders – Tesco and Eddie Stobart have apparently shown interest in this (see full details here).
It was through Legal Aid that disabled people challenged the Bedroom Tax yesterday. It was through Legal Aid that the Gurkhas were able to challenge the British Government over their rights. It was through Legal Aid that the parents of Victoria Climbie were able to change the way child protection was monitored. And it is through Legal Aid that many, many people have managed to appeal against miscarriages of justice.
Debbie Abrahams, MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth, told the rally that MPs of all parties were `outraged' at the proposals… "The Government's own impact assessment said it would disproportionately affect the most vulnerable in society" she said "and this from a country that has a proud tradition of the rule of law and access to justice going back to the Magna Carta.
"The proposals reduce the scope and eligibility of who can access Legal Aid" she added "To be unable to have your costs upfront before you're even charged and not even convicted is an absolute outrage and in contravention of the Human Rights Act. It's a disgrace."
Indeed, speakers at the rallies at the beginning of the march at Crown Square, and at the end of the march at Cathedral Gardens, lined up to slate the unfairness of the ConDem Government legislation.
Legendary lawyer, Robert Lizar, who, for years, has represented local people in difficult rights cases said "We're not fat cats in Legal Aid, it's not about our jobs, it's about justice - you cannot have a fair system of justice unless it is open to all.
"The cuts in criminal Legal Aid will put at risk a whole range of vulnerable people who will be at the mercy of the system, at the hands of the police and state organisations" he added "And we will see a far greater number of miscarriages of justice."
Dennis Queen, of Disabled People Against Cuts, explained that disabled people are one of the groups who are discriminated against disproportionately in society, while also most likely to be living on low income and in poverty… "When we have a case to fight we're more likely than a lot of other citizens to use the Legal Aid system…Justice isn't something you only get if you can afford it, that's why we've had Legal Aid for over sixty years – it's an attempt to level the playing field."
Just what people are up against was demonstrated graphically by Robin Sargent of Access To Advice, who brought on stage a pile of books featuring over six thousand pages of laws and regulations that a person would need to study to challenge social security decisions alone. Specialist legal advice to help those challenges was removed in April…
"You are expected to know which part of the law you can use to challenge the Government and you're virtually on your own" he said "Your rights are becoming inaccessible and the support you need to claim them no longer available.
Many marchers carried placards reading `Tesco Value Legal Aid', a reference to the ConDem's proposals to give legal contracts to the cheapest bidders, and multi-nationals are already eyeing up a new source of potential profits.
Chris Hilliard, the student fees protester who won his battle against conviction, explained how the Legal Aid lawyer was a `godsend' at time… "the problem with these proposals is that they're going to make it so you can't necessarily get a specialist lawyer because it's expensive to specialise; so you'll get the Tescos and the Eddie Stobarts, taking over. If these changes come in they will not just change the way we see Legal Aid, they will decimate the legal system."
Public law barrister, John Nicholson, insisted that the demonstration was not about `fat cat' lawyers trying to protect their fees but about "people needing Legal Aid, who are also the people most attacked by all the rest of the Government cuts - those people who are being evicted because of the Bedroom Tax, those people who are losing their disability benefits on the basis that they must seek a job which doesn't exist; those people who, as of yesterday, will have to pay if they are unfairly treated at work; and those who are seeking to reunite with their families from abroad
"It's about destroying public services of which Legal Aid are a part" he added "And those public services are being privatised and deregulated. We're going to be stuck with Eddie Stobart – `Briefs On Wheels'."
For further details see www.savelegalaid.co.uk
Sign the online petition: epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/48628