AFTER months of insightful articles in the legal blogosphere expressing contempt over the government’s proposed legal aid reforms, lawyers finally went public in recent weeks holding demonstrations outside parliament and the Ministry of Justice.
The protests were well attended by the legal profession but left the impression it was a private battle between them and the government and had as yet failed to draw in the wider public.
Justice minister Chris Grayling’s attempts to portray criminal lawyers as fat-cats only interested in cuts to their fees have been effortlessly dismissed by lawyers, MPs and human rights defenders who have lined up to warn of the consequences to society’s most vulnerable should the changes go through.
Prisoners, torture victims, immigrants, ethnic minorities, the poor, homeless and abused or exploited women will all suffer should they lose their right to legal aid, access to judicial reviews or choice of a solicitor who can defend them effectively against the state.
But what relevance does this have to the apathetic and apolitical who have never used, nor considered using, legal aid. Why should they care?
Michael Fordham QC argues passionately that the moral case should be enough to win them over.
He said: “I’m not appealing to people’s self-interest, I’m appealing to people’s sense of justice. This is a badge of what matters in a democratic society and if we don’t look after those who need to be protected, whether it’s us or our neighbour or somebody down the road, if we don’t look after them, then shame on us.”
As a cynic, I suspect access to legal aid for marginalised groups and alleged criminals may not rate as highly on everyone’s list of battles as they are hit by their own economic crisis and loss of privileges and benefits. (Protest fatigue provides an effective slipstream for a government in a rush to slash the welfare state before it’s kicked out of power in two years time.)
But it should be made clear that it’s not just minority groups and criminals that will unduly suffer from these proposals.
As Tom Wainwright, a barrister at Garden Court Chambers, explained: “Lots of people think they are never going to need legal aid. I’ve seen it time and time again, but it can happen so easily. There are thousands and thousands of examples. No one actually ever thinks they will need legal aid until they do and if these proposals go through they are going to be very shocked at what they find.”
Anyone, or their precious child, can find themselves charged with a crime whether it be after a ‘moment of madness’, they are wrongly accused or the gray area in between: causing death by dangerous driving when someone steps out in front of them, ABH when they acted in self-defence, violent disorder when they were marching peacefully; not to mention all the innocents that are swept up in over-zealous activist, drug, gang and terrorism raids with no knowledge or involvement of any crime.
And when they are, they and their families will understandably want to choose solicitors expert in their field who are caring and determined, but the government’s proposals will remove that choice.
The government proposes that it appoints your solicitor depending on some arbitrary factor like your surname or date of birth. These all-purpose solicitors will be employed by large companies that could include Eddie Stobart, the haulage company, Tesco, Co-op or G4S who’s sole duty is to their shareholders. And with fixed fees for trials up to two days long they will be financially rewarded if they encourage clients to plead guilty.
Meanwhile the state will continue to have access to the best lawyers who are unconstrained by time or money to build the strongest case possible against you or your loved one.
Complicated cases can require months of carefully going through or tracking down evidence to establish the truth. Will McSolicitors have time or care enough to do so?
Without such diligence there will be more miscarriages of justice like the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four while student protesters Alfie Meadows and Zak King, wrongly accused of violent disorder, would most likely be languishing in jail.
None of them ever dreamt of finding themselves in the dock facing years in jail.
And there’s nothing to prevent it from happening to you.
The only difference is you may not get to choose the solicitor you need if these proposals go through.