In last week’s address to both Houses of Parliament, German Chancellor Angela Merkel praised the UK’s leading role in the development of the rule of law. Of course, Chancellor Merkel is right – we should be rightfully proud of this gift to the world – from the Magna Carta right up the present day our legal, constitutional and political influence has been truly global.
And we continue to this day to have a reputation for open and fair justice the world over. Today, London is the destination of choice for many people and organisations from around the world seeking legal services or using our courts. Billions of pounds and thousands of jobs depend on it.
But as we approach next year’s 800th birthday of the Magna Carta, the very foundations of our legal system are being undermined. The rule of law is being weakened. Citizens’ rights are being attacked. Our reputation as a bastion of open and fair justice is under threat.
Since 2010, on this Government’s watch, we’ve seen no-win, no-fee curtailed, limits placed on the use of judicial review, and an almost daily onslaught on human rights laws. And twice in the last four years legal aid has come under serious and unprecedented attack.
It is the latest of these attacks on legal aid that’s generated today’s protests. Up and down the country clients and potential clients, barristers and solicitors, campaigners and activists are voicing their concern at the consequences of the Government’s plans on our justice system. They fear that another round of cuts to fees and the forced consolidation of the sector could result in a reduction in the quality of legal representation, expertise and experience being lost and that it being much harder to right wrongs.
I’m acutely aware of the need to make savings in our justice budget. I know, having worked in the legal profession, that there’s plenty of opportunities to root out inefficiency and waste. We should be doing all we can to avoid disputes reaching the expense of the court room. If they do reach courts, then our priority has to be dealing with them quickly, effectively and justly. We should be looking at whether we really need duplicate court buildings in towns and cities, and whether lower level offences could be dealt with in other civic buildings such as town halls and council buildings.
This is an opportunity to be truly radical yet Chris Grayling has flunked it. He’s swotted away, like some kind of irritating fly, the alternative savings offered up by the likes of the Bar Council, the Law Society and Labour and has pushed ahead regardless with his plans. All of this done against the advice of experts and professionals who are genuinely fearful at the impact the plans will have.
I can only conclude from this that the Government’s legal aid plans are more about ideology than money. I’m not one of those who think you can’t be Lord Chancellor unless you’ve been a solicitor or a barrister but it helps if you have even a smidgen of an understanding of how our justice system works to do the job properly. Or want to learn.
Being Lord Chancellor involves swearing an oath to uphold the law of the land. And to do this means maintaining the rule of law, protecting the independence of our judiciary and ensuring all our citizens have access to justice regardless of ability to pay. It doesn’t mean instigating a running propaganda war with barristers and solicitors, nor presiding over the biggest loss of confidence by the legal profession in a Lord Chancellor in a generation.
Despite claiming to be the Party of ‘liberty’, David Cameron’s government, aided and abetted by Nick Clegg, has shown scant regard for the rule of law or access to justice. They have weakened the ability of citizens to play an active role in holding to account those in positions of authority. In the process they have insulated bad policy making from challenge, riding roughshod over individual rights.
The Government needs to recognise that not everyone caught up in the wheels of justice are criminals, and not everyone in receipt of legal aid is guilty of an offence or undeserving.
In reality, legal aid is about ensuring everyone has access to justice regardless of the ability to pay. It levels the playing field when someone faces the full force of the state in legal proceedings. And time and again, it has proven its worth. It means the truly guilty are convicted, and the innocent walk free.
But it’s done more – it’s rectified miscarriages of justice, such as freeing the Guildford 4 and Birmingham 6 wrongly imprisoned for a crime they didn’t commit. It allowed the family of Zahid Mubarek to get to the bottom of the failings that led to his murder by a racist cellmate in Feltham Young Offender Institution. As Janis Sharp recently said, it’s only because of legal aid that her son Gary McKinnon is still in the UK today. And lets not forget the family of Jean Charles De Menezes, the Gurkhas, the Lawrence family and the countless millions over the decades who have benefited from legal aid.
It should worry us all that the current Lord Chancellor is so casual about access to justice and the rule of law. Those of us who care about the justice system need to unite and focus our energies on reminding Chris Grayling, David Cameron and Nick Clegg of the responsibility that rests on their shoulders, and prevent any more acts of vandalism to our precious justice system.