The government’s response to the consultation on reforming legal aid is clear: it will not listen to the people or the profession unless they are willing to put up a fight. Having exhausted more traditional means of protest, we must now utilise all democratic channels available to us. That is why any and all against the legal aid cuts should attend UK Uncut’s mass action on 5th October 2013.
This action should be the first step in our next stage of escalating opposition to the legal aid reforms. The government’s attack on our profession – and on society as a whole – renders this in effect an industrial dispute. As a result, our movement in opposition to it now needs to be prepared to take industrial action. Only industrial action can halt an assault on this scale.
This summer we witnessed our power as workers in the legal profession and as concerned citizens. Our solidarity has caused the government to ‘U-turn’ on its plans to deny individuals of the right to choose their own lawyer. As a result of our protests, the government is holding another consultation on the future of criminal legal aid. The government has been forced to back away from one of the most offensive elements of its proposals: the ‘race to the bottom’ of price competitive tendering (PCT) for criminal legal aid contracts has been taken off the table for all but duty solicitor schemes. This change to a central plank of the government’s proposals resulted solely from the massive pressure placed on them. Nonetheless, the government will continue to wreak havoc on the justice system if we stop now and celebrate too soon.
We must not let this be our standalone victory.
We should be proud that, from the Town Hall Meeting at Friends’ House in May 2013, to the demonstrations outside of the Ministry, to the lobbying which continues to the present day, we have united in an unprecedented manner.
We have held demonstrations and voiced our opposition to the legal aid changes through various professional groups, grassroots organisations, charities, as members of the public, through campaigns such as the Justice Alliance, and through signing petitions. The articles written for the media outlining the numerous drawbacks of the proposals ensured that the public knew that these proposals were not meant to end the gravy train for ‘fat cat’ lawyers, but that the Lord Chancellor was taking a swipe at our democratic freedoms.
What our concerted efforts against the legal aid ‘transformation’ have shown us, above all, is that the will is there for a fight. Amongst the legal profession, there is near unanimity about the negative effects these cuts will have on our society. A number of meetings and lectures brought forward some of the UK’s most respected QCs, judges, and lawyers, united in their condemnation of these proposals.
We then bided our time after our concerns were made manifestly clear to Grayling, waiting for the Ministry’s next move.
Now, as the consultation responses submitted to the Government in June 2013 and resulting campaigns were so overwhelmingly against each of the limbs of the attack on legal aid, the very gall of the Government to power full steam ahead on so many of its original proposals – cutting the ability of individuals to challenge governmental decisions through judicial review; cutting legal aid for prison law; and continuing with its xenophobic attack on legal aid for those who do not meet the proposed one year ‘residence test’ – is extraordinary. The £220 million still set to be taken out of the legal aid budget is going to decimate our justice system, leaving its vestiges accessible only to the rich, both in terms of a career in legal aid and to those who have suffered injustice.
We are living under a government which is dishing out misery after misery to large swathes of the population. Those from marginalised groups (or those who do not have the luxury of being rich) face the bleakness of job insecurity, unaffordable housing, and a government which slashes benefits while telling us that those poor and in work ‘need to work more’, and that it is possible to live on poverty wages. As Stephen Sedley rightly notes, justice under this government’s watch means that ‘the rule of law [is] from now on, like everything else, going to be negotiable.’
It is our social responsibility as lawyers and concerned members of the public to ensure that even when, as a nation, we are plunging into greater inequality and greater unfairness, we fight for the ability to uphold our most basic rights. We cannot sit back and watch some of our most dearly held principles, including equality before the law and the right to challenge unlawful governmental decisions, slip away from us.
We cannot let our response to the government’s devastating cuts be divided. The civil and criminal sides of the profession must act together, alongside all who support this fight. All democratic channels must be utilised to challenge this historic attack on our rights. This autumn needs to be the season of direct action, and of strike action if the government is to continue with its decimation of the justice system. We cannot have a ‘wait and see’ approach.
The position of the Bar Council and the Law Society is to ensure the least awful compromise for those professions they represent. However, our movement united – from those who work long hours in legal aid who cannot take a 17.5% pay cut, to those concerned citizens who wish to fight to save UK justice – must be uncompromising in our fight to save legal aid.
Together, we have the collective strength to stop these uneconomical and ideological attacks dead in their tracks.
It is our civic duty to do so. We cannot wait for action. Because if not now, when?
Natalie is on the executive committee of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers and is a criminal defence caseworker at Lloyds PR Solicitors (but is writing in a personal capacity)