Several hundred protesters blocked the road, halting traffic outside the entrance to the Ministry near St James’s Park in London. Chants of “No legal aid! No justice!” and “Stop the raid on legal aid” accompanied placards declaring “Save Justice Defend Legal Aid” and “Justice for all, not just the rich”. Earlier in the day, a one minute silence was observed outside courts throughout the country at 9.59 am.
The Demonstration to Save Justice, organised by Wilson Solicitors LLP, was addressed by barristers, campaigners and MPs on loudhailers, who can’t have failed to get their message across to the Ministers inside.
Dinah Rose QC was amongst those who rallied the crowd. Rubbishing the view that lawyers are motivated by self-interest as one “born of ignorance”, she said that junior legal aid barristers “earn much less than nurses, less than teachers and much much less than GPs”. The cuts would have no impact on her income, Rose said, having never done criminal legal aid work. “I am here,” she said, “because the proposals appal me, because of what they will do about access to justice for the most vulnerable and about the quality of justice which our system provides.” Introducing a “system of local monopolies immunised from consumer choice and the pressure of competition” in such a short time frame “fails the most basic test of administration,” she remonstrated.
Legal aid “was not an avocado”, Michael Fordham QC told the crowd, holding the fruit aloft. “They think it is soft and you can cut it whenever you want and keep on cutting it because no one really needs it, until they get to the stone and then chuck it away.”
But legal aid, Fordham said, is the “beating heart of the rule of law”. “What could matter more,” he asked, “than that those who are disadvantaged and those who are marginalised have effective protection?” “And if the state is up against you,” he warned, “they will have the lawyers they choose, every time.”
Geoffrey Robertson QC, who likened the guinea earned by barristers in the age of the “dock brief” – £15 in today’s money – to the fee currently received by barristers on the 40th day of a category D case, said that the Ministry was “destroying professionalism” and warned “never should barristers have a final incentive to betray their clients”. He suspected a “hidden agenda” that would enable the Government to “behave illegally without being called to account”, by targeting their cuts on the poorest and most disadvantaged, and limiting access to judicial review.
The “acid test of a civilisation,” he said, was “the way they treat their vulnerable members”. Instead of these “wretched proposals”, Robertson suggested that those over the income threshold should pay a contribution toward their legal costs. The Ministry, he said, should target its cuts on the QCs to whom the Government is paying “exhorbitant fees” to “protect their ministers”, referencing the three QCs instructed by Home Secretary Theresa May in the Abu Qatada deportation case.
The Ministry of Justice declined to comment on the rally.