September 28 2023

‘We’re here to celebrate legal aid, not mourn its death’

‘We’re here to celebrate legal aid, not mourn its death’

Legal Aid cut protest

‘Look at the words written on the front of the Old Bailey,’ said Shauneen Lambe to hundreds of lawyers and campaigners outside the iconic central criminal court last night: ‘Defend the children of the poor and punish the wrongdoer.’ ‘I have no doubt in my mind that today the government are the wrongdoers,’ Lambe said. Mary-Rachel McCabe reports.

The director of Just for Kids Law was speaking at a rally organised by the newly formed Justice Alliance to celebrate the 64th anniversary of legal aid – introduced by the Legal Aid and Assistance Act on 30th July 1949 – and protest against the justice secretary Chris Grayling’s hugely controversial Transforming Legal Aid consultation, which threatens the removal of access to justice for thousands of people.

Lambe – who acted in the recent High Court case that ruled that treating 17-year-olds in police custody as adults is unlawful – told the rally that, whilst she is proud of the work that Just for Kids Law does, she is deeply anxious about what is happening to the legal aid system.

‘I’m really scared to live in a country where something that we hold as so fundamental is being eroded by the government and no one can see that they’re taking away the fundamental rights of the citizens. I’m scared that the courts are going to be the place that only the elite and big corporations have access to. I’m scared that it’s only going to be the individuals who can pay that get justice.’
Shauneen Lambe, Just for Kids Law

Other speakers at the rally included Liberty’s director, Shami Chakrabarti, comedian Josie Long, MPs Jeremy Corbyn and Sadiq Khan, ex-prisoners Leroy Skeete and Raphael Rowe, and others whose lives have been saved by legal aid. Hundreds of charities, campaigners, trade unions and lawyers gathered outside the Old Bailey for the celebration of legal aid, which was compered by the comedian and political activist Kate Smurthwaite.

Former prisoner Leroy Skeete told the rally that ‘the system shits on the poor; it has to stop.’ Entangled in the prison system from the age of ten, Skeete was released on licence in 2009 following a successful challenge to a decision to extend his sentence with the help of Prisoners’ Advice Service’s Matt Evans.

Now a mentor to ex-offenders, Skeete told yesterday’s rally that ‘with legal aid, people like me can go on and make a difference.’

If Grayling’s proposals are implemented prisoners will no longer receive legal aid for many important issues, such as whether they are treated lawfully and humanely in the prison system. Anne Hall, whose severely disabled son Daniel Roque Hall was recently released from prison early after his lawyers argued the prison service could not meet his complex medical needs, was all too aware of this. ‘The only protection a prisoner has is his legal aid solicitor. That lies between him and a life destroyed, or death,’ she told the rally.

Don’t give up
The comedian Josie Long, who is involved with the anti-tax avoidance activist group UK Uncut, told the rally that although the legal aid cuts will not directly impact her, she ‘doesn’t want to sit by and not try to fight what the government is trying to do’. On behalf of ‘those who are feckless and work in the arts’, Long thanked legal aid lawyers for the work they ‘tirelessly’ do for ‘so few perks and thrills’. ‘It’s difficult to keep fighting when you are being attacked from all angles by this government. If you care a lot about social justice and inequality it can feel like you’re born, you fight and you die on the losing team,’ she said, before urging those at the rally not to give up.

Shami Chakrabarti was similarly combative in her speech to the rally, as she held up a placard which read ‘Be afraid without legal aid’. ‘I am not afraid because this isn’t over yet,’ said the Liberty director, ‘this hasn’t even begun.’ Chakrabarti praised the UK for being the ‘oldest unbroken democracy on earth’ and spoke of her pride at having grown up in a country where expert medical care and legal help was provided to everyone, regardless of ability to pay.  ‘I don’t want to live in a different country to the one I’ve just described,’ she said, ‘whether I’ve been run over or been accused of a terrible crime, or someone wants to take my child from me.’  She concluded defiantly: ‘I am here to celebrate legal aid, not to mourn its death.’

When I’m 64
And celebrate they did. Labour MP Diane Abbott blew out the candles on a 64th birthday cake for legal aid, and representatives from the London Youth Gospel Choir led the crowd in a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday Legal Aid’ and The Beatles’ classic ‘When I’m 64’. Musician and BBC 6 Music presenter Tom Robinson and his punk-era contemporary TV Smith crooned that there is ‘one law for the rich and another one for the poor’, and singer/songwriter Adeola Johnson performed a song about legal aid that she had written specially for the occasion.

National co-chair of Black Activists Rising Against Cuts (BARAC), Zita Holbourne also read the poem that she had written for Stephen Lawrence’s family: ‘Strange kind of justice’. (‘Strange kind of justice that requires wealth and power in order to be accessed; that shuts its doors on the least empowered and the poorest.’)

‘Legal aid is the same age as me,’ quipped Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn at the rally, ‘and I want both of us to go on for a very, very long time.’ Corbyn reminisced about being outside the Old Bailey on the ‘magic’ day the Birmingham Six walked free in 1991 and read a letter to the rally from Billy Power, one of the six:

‘Had these proposals been in place during our imprisonment, we’d never have had our day in court to clear our names or walk free from the Old Bailey. Without legal aid and choice, how many more miscarriages of justice?’
Billy Power, Birmingham 6

Fellow miscarriage of justice victim Raphael Rowe, one of the M25 Three, echoed Power’s sentiment, saying that without legal aid, he’d still be in prison today. Rowe, who is now a reporter on the BBC’s Panorama, told the rally that it was a ‘travesty’ that the BBC was not doing anything to look at the legal aid system. ‘They should be doing more,’ he said, ‘it’s the little people like you and me it’s affecting.’

One of those ‘little people’ was the mother of a rape victim. Known only as ‘Sally’ to protect her daughter’s anonymity, she told the rally that her daughter had been failed by the justice system as the Met had lost key mobile phone evidence during a botched investigation into the rape of her then 15-year-old daughter. ‘What could I do?’ she asked. ‘I was, and am, an ordinary woman. We had enough money to live on but not to pay for lawyers.’ With the help of legal aid, the officers involved were eventually disciplined for misconduct. ‘Legal aid has shown my daughter that she can stand up to anyone, even the state,’ concluded Sally.

Legally illiterate
Hand-in-hand with any celebration of the legal aid system came the inevitable lambasting of the justice secretary, Chris Grayling. Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan labelled Grayling ‘the most legally illiterate Lord Chancellor in the history of our country’, as he ridiculed him for believing that ‘if you are charged with a criminal offence, you are a criminal.’ Ian Lawrence, from the probation and family courts union Napo, was similarly vociferous: ‘You are unfit for purpose and you should resign now,’ he said. ‘Justice is not for profit, it’s ours.’

Matt Foot, a solicitor at Birnberg Peirce and one of the founders of the Justice Alliance, concluded the rally by echoing Lawrence’s call for unity among civil and criminal lawyers, probation officers, civil servants, and unions. ‘If Grayling’s not going to listen to us, we’re going to have to act more determined, with more resistance. We’ve got to look at what’s worked in the past. What worked for the Sufragettes? It wasn’t just asking for the vote, it was taking direct action; it was taking militant action,’ said Foot.

Foot reminded the rally that back in May, in ‘the most amazing moment I’ve ever seen in my life’, 1000 lawyers voted to come out on ‘training days’ if Grayling does not respond to opposition from the legal profession. ‘Today can give us confidence,’ he said.

‘We all have the same battle. We can all unite together on the same day, or in the same week to fight this government. I would urge everyone here to get involved in that fight; to get other organisations on board. Let’s get this as big as we can get it, and stop Grayling in his tracks.’
Matt Foot