Saving Legal Aid – 17th june 2013

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In Manchester now, there is a movement the likes of which is rarely seen – PCS union members who work in the court system have joined with lawyers, activists and members of the community to fight the proposed changes to the legal system.

The changes that are proposed are no small and innocuous administrative changes – the proposals from all sides are akin to Dr Beaching’s plans with the natural railways, with a mix of Thatcher thrown in. They include amongst a long list, the privatisation of court services, the removal of access to legal aid for many and the massive restriction of access to judicial review – the main way to challenge the government’s attacks.

These are some of the many reasons that the PCS had called for strike action. This is why the lawyers are fighting.  This is why members of the community are gathering together to fight.

Press Release! – Say No To Legal Aid Reform! – Protest, Tuesday 21st May

The Ministry of Justice has put forward a plan to reform the Criminal Legal Aid system. Their plans include the removal of the ability for a defendant to choose their own lawyers, it removes the principal of competition on quality rather than cost and it lays out a roadmap for quartering the number of legal aid firms and decimating the sector, while also pushing for massive companies like Serco, G4S, Atos and Eddie Stobart to join the legal sector.

These changes will be devastating to the legal aid sector, and will lead to not only a loss of skill, but also a loss of justice. The removal of a client’s choice of solicitor means the removal of specialist firms and solicitors from the sector – complex cases such as computer crimes, protest situations and allegations of fraud will become harder to defend. Harder to defend not because of any new wave of evidence, but because the skills and understandings that are required to put forward a good defense have been drained from the niche firms that will disappear if only a few of the recommendations in the Ministry’s document go forward. Leaving the only skilled people in those areas either in paid-for defense firms or the halls of the Crown Prosecution service – truly unbalancing Liberty’s carefully balanced scales. The loss of choice and its inevitable impact on available specialists for clients with mental health issues, special needs and very young clients (12/13 yrs or younger) will have a devastating impact on some of the most vulnerable in our society.

On the day of the Ministry Of Justice’s consultation in Manchester, we are preparing a response to these plans. We are coming together, rallying, and marching on their consultation. Among the speakers will be lawyers Robert Lizar and Peter Weatherby and Jennifer Hilliard – the mothers of two of the many protesters who would have likely been in prison if these reforms were in place for their trials (Chris and Andrew Hilliard). We will hear about the direct impact of the plans from the lawyers facing them. And we will be hearing from people who would have felt the cuts the hardest – the innocent clients that needed and received a good defense.

Our rally outside of Manchester Crown Court at 4:20 on the 21st of May, followed by our march at 5pm to the Palace Hotel in time to answer their consultation at 5:30 is our reply. With a solid voice, composed of many, declaring the community’s answer to the consultation questions together with a simple answer – No To Criminal Legal Aid Reforms!

The Facebook event – http://bit.ly/MancLAprotest
A5 flier – http://bit.ly/10ZCAYh
A4 Poster – http://bit.ly/103Nk9g
A3 Poster – http://bit.ly/YM2wu4

A Personal Perspective on Legal Aid Reforms

We all hear the words “Legal Aid” banded about and we hope that we never need to use it, but what
do we really know about it and about the proposed changes to it? It was introduced as part of the
Legal Advice and Assistance Act 1949 by Attlee’s post-war Labour government. It was a direct result
of the recommendations of the Rushcliffe Committee to Parliament. The fundamental principle was
that Legal Aid would be available in all courts and in such manner that it would enable persons in
need to have access to the professional help they require.

This principle is now under threat by the changes that are proposed to criminal legal aid. Today
if you need a lawyer, you can appoint one of your own choosing or have one appointed for you. If
these proposals are accepted, you will have a lawyer appointed for you and you will not be able to
change that lawyer except under certain rare circumstances. You will not have the option to choose
a lawyer that has expertise or experience with your type of case. Instead you will be allocated one
on an arbitrary basis that is yet to be determined. You might be forgiven for wondering why this is a
problem as you will still get legal representation so let me explain, from my experiences, why this is
such a bad move.

I am the mother of two sons who were arrested at the student demonstrations against the rise in
tuition fees on 9th December 2010. They were accused of pulling a police officer off his horse and
charged with Violent Disorder which carries a maximum prison sentence of 5 years. After two trials
and 17 months later both boys were unanimously acquitted in under 2 hours at the end of a two
week trail.

The choice of a specialist law firm was crucial to the process of building their defence and to
tracking down the evidence needed for the defence case. A total of 11 police officers gave witness
statements for the prosecution and because of this we were warned that it would “very difficult
case” to win. Not only were the boys lawyers (Bindmans) fantastic and willing to go the extra mile
but because they specialise in protest cases we were contacted by support groups through them.
One of these groups (Legal Defence and Monitoring Group) helped us appeal for witnesses and
uncovered a critical piece of video footage that showed the mounted officer attacking the boys from
behind without provocation.

The barristers who represented the boys were selected based on their specialist knowledge and
experience in this type of case and great care was taken by Bindmans in selecting them. A choice
these changes will take away. The future under the proposals would not have any specialist lawyers
or barristers working on legal aid cases because the random allocation of cases would not allow
expertise to be developed or specialist experience to be gained.

Another law firm, allocated the case based on costs, may well have advised my sons to plead guilty,
because it would be more profitable to them and because of the difficulties of the case. We would
never have uncovered the witnesses we found or the video evidence and my sons would have
been left with no defence and no option but to plead guilty to an offence they did not commit. The
proposed cuts in fees payable to legal representatives will undoubtedly encourage the use of “in
house” barristers or of solicitor advocates rather than the specialist barristers who for example had
equestrian experience in our case.

The proposed changes to criminal legal aid represent a move towards conveyor belt justice with
lawyers being allocated on a cost basis with no choice for the defendant while drastically cutting the
fees payable to legal representatives.

Will the proposals save money? On the face of it, almost certainly. However, the bigger question
is will they still deliver justice? Undoubtedly the answer is no as we will see the legal profession
decimated and defendants poorly represented in all but the easiest cases to defend, resulting in
shaky convictions and an increase in appeals.

I believe that if these proposed changes had been in place when my sons were arrested and
they had not been able to choose the law firm to represent them they would not only have been
convicted of a serious offence but they would now be in prison.

This is not justice.

Jennifer.