Marching under the banner was a group of barristers, including members of Tooks, the chambers of Michael Mansfield QC and Patrick Roche QC. With a further round of cuts to legal aid threatened in the government green papers, and concerns amongst many of the respondents to the paper that the cuts will lead to real injustices, Catherine Rayner and Rebecca Chapman asked some of the barristers marching what brought them out onto the streets.
The fight for justice for those in need
Michael Mansfield QC, joint head of Tooks Chambers pointed out the rarity of barristers demonstrating in their professional capacity. He considered that their presence at the demonstration held a singular significance.
“It’s not about us as lawyers, but about the provision of legal assistance and justice in critical areas of human need. The Bar has never been portrayed as a caring profession, let alone a frontline service, yet nevertheless for years legal aid barristers have worked alongside other lawyers endeavouring to give basic advice and representation. The 40% cuts in civil legal aid will see the demise of this safety net which has been kept alive for decades on a shoe string budget.”
Marching as barristers
Why was it important for him and members of his chambers to attend the demonstration as barristers, rather than as members of the public? As well as the need to highlight the threats to legal aid, he said that it was important to stand together with transport and community workers, musicians and actors, speech therapists and teaching assistants, Ghurkhas, young legal aid lawyers, Community Law Centres and all those facing cuts to jobs and services, to give a clear and universal message. “We will not allow our vision of equality, diversity and fairness to be sold off in order to salvage the last vestiges of capitalist greed, he said.
Positive public response
Piers Mostyn agreed. One of the problems that lawyers have faced in trying to respond to the threats to legal aid, is a sense of isolation, and a concern that there will be no public sympathy. Certainly lawyers get a rough deal in the wider media. However, he was very encouraged by the response he had had from the public, and other marchers, when handing out a leaflet explaining the impact of legal aid cuts, and the reason why barristers were marching.
“I handed out thousands of leaflets,” he told us, ”and people were really interested and sympathetic. Public sector workers were delighted that we were marching alongside them, and understood the potential effect of legal aid cuts. The people I spoke to are concerned that with jobs and services under threat, the people who lose out will be the same people who will need legal aid in the future to advise on unfair dismissals; debt problems; benefits and housing issues. These cuts will take away the safety net. As voluntary organisations giving advice also lose funding, people will face a stark choice, of either finding the money to pay for advice, or representing themselves, and that’s not something that most people feel happy or confident about doing. As our leaflet pointed out Legal Aid really is the 4th pillar of the Welfare State, and a vital part alongside education, social services and the NHS.”
Educational Maintenance Allowance
Other barristers made similar comments: Joel Bennathan QC was worried about the impact on the poorest in society. “The cut that worries me most is the loss of the Educational Maintenance Allowance” he said. “It’s a cut that takes away very modest payments that poor kids trying to better themselves relied upon.” He added that “I can see there have to be savings, but I think these cuts are far more savage than needs be and are being made in part to pursue a political agenda.”
Impact of the cuts on refugees
Immigration and asylum barristers are concerned about the impact of the cuts on refugees’ seeking to be reunited with their families and on the women and men who had come to the UK to join their British spouse or partner. Where would they now go for legal advice if they need to leave their marriage or civil partnership because of domestic violence? “These immigration clients will no longer be eligible for legal aid, and are not going to be able to represent themselves. This is a major concern.”
Effect on access to and quality of justice
Katy Thorne, a criminal defence barrister with over 17 years’ experience of defending very vulnerable people, also recognised that the legal aid cuts must be seen as part of the wider agenda on cuts. She told us of her concerns of how the cuts will affect access to and quality of justice.
“As well as marching to protest against cuts to services in education, health and child care, I am concerned about the proposals to cut legal aid yet further. If this round of cuts to legal aid are implemented, people who are arrested will find their access to quality legal advice has been severely curtailed and that they are facing what I can only describe as a conveyor belt approach to justice.” Katy explained that many solicitors who have built up years of experience working for vulnerable criminal clients in firms specialising in legal aid work are being driven out of business, or are leaving the profession, because the cuts in hourly rates make it impossible to do the job properly. “The one size fits all hourly rates and fixed fee approach takes no account of the vulnerabilities of many clients, and the additional work required to take instructions at the most basic level from people with mental health issues, literacy problems, or other social problems.” She is also concerned about how cuts to the NHS, and to mental health services and administrative and support staff in particular will impact upon the ability of doctors to help the courts. “When it’s necessary to find out about a client’s mental health issues, we will face real difficulties simply in getting the information through.
Where the staff and resources are being cut, it’s going to have a knock on effect.” For Katy the bottom line is about the fundamentals of justice itself.
“My ultimate concern? That innocent people will be convicted of crimes they did not commit, simply because the professionals are no longer allowed to spend the necessary time getting proper instructions, or chasing witnesses.”
A vital safety net that needs to be protected
The overwhelming feeling amongst those we spoke to, repeated by other groups of lawyers on the march, including Justice4All, and the Young Legal Aid Practitioners Group, is that legal aid, both civil and criminal, is not just good value for money, costing the whole of England and Wales just £2 billion, but that it is a vital safety net for people on low incomes who are at risk of losing their jobs and homes, as well as those facing divorce and child custody proceedings, or criminal proceedings.
Catherine Rayner and Rebecca Chapman are practising barristers at Tooks Chambers