Proof magazine: Making a drama out of a crisis
Christabel McCooey and Jon Robins talk to artists about taking on the legal aid cuts in an article for Proof magazine
‘The men they came. Mild they were. Not thugs with baseball bats but holding clipboards processing the poor.’ These words come from ‘Shaun’, a character in Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s play, The Invisible, before he sets himself on fire. Set against the backdrop of the 2013 legal aid cuts, the play explores the meaning of ‘access to justice’ through a series of short encounters: Shaun losing his house; Ken fighting for access to his children in the family courts without a lawyer; and Aisha, whose hopes of a happy marriage fade as she suffers beatings and abuse from her new husband and mother-in-law.
The play, which was performed at the Bush Theatre in 2015, is set in the not too distant and instantly recognisable future. ‘Britain is all about the paying customer now, not the citizen. They used to call us “passengers” on trains, now it’s “customers”. Vile,’ one character says. ‘I hear Tesco’s are branching into law,’ says another.
A full version of this article appear in the latest issue of Proof Life in the Justice Gap: Why legal aid matters.
Proof is the print magazine of the Justice Gap. The latest issue features contributions from Helena Kennedy QC, Martha Spurrier, Lord Tony Gifford QC as well as journalists including the Guardian’s David Conn and Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi who has written an extended article reporting from the frontline of the legal aid cuts. The cover and Rebecca’s article is illustrated by the award-winning artist Simon Pemberton.
Lenkiewicz’s law centre solicitors, Gail and Laura, are at the centre of the play. The playwright captures the thankless slog of life as a legal aid lawyer as the pair tries to keep sane doing their best to help the endless stream of poor and vulnerable clients who find their way to their dishevelled and debt-ridden offices. ‘We’re not good women. We’re expert practitioners,’ says Gail.‘We may not power dress but we’re not knitting circles.’
Its snapshots of the characters’ lives are brief, necessarily so perhaps, but it made its central point forcefully. ‘This isn’t normal life now, Ken. You’re in the system,’ says Gail. ‘Do you realise how ter- rifying that is?’
‘Access to justice’ is too abstract a notion, and the labyrinthine regulations that govern legal aid frankly too dull, to lend themselves easily to dramatic treatment. The critical and commercial success of a film like Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, which took on the inhumanity of our benefits system, suggests that the public has at least some appetite for artistic commentary on today’s societal ills.
Why did Lenkiewicz decide to make a drama out of the impoverishment of our system of pub- licly funded law? ‘I was really surprised at the huge sweep of the cuts and felt it was important to write about it and to give it a human face instead of simply statistics,’ she says. ‘I felt there had been much written about the NHS but not so much about legal aid. I also felt that the public’s perception of lawyers was often skewed with their image of fat cat lawyers rather than those who are fighting for real social change.’
The production was sponsored by the Law Society. ‘Legal aid is not a welfare benefit,’ the then Law Society president Andrew Caplen wrote in his introduction to the play.‘It is essential for a humane, just and civilised society. It ensures that the weak and the powerless – the invisible – receive justice, that most fundamental of rights.’
The solicitors’ representative body’s own campaign against the LASPO cuts did little to capture the public and political consciousness. It secured few, albeit significant, concessions. At the time, the Law Society president Des Hudson cited the Society’s own lack of success to explain their rationale for negotiating with the government over its plans to radically reform the criminal defence profession – a decision taken in the face of almost total opposition from defence lawyers who backed direct action. ‘It is fine and easy to argue for what everybody wants to hear,’ Hudson said. ‘It is far more difficult to take pragmatic, difficult choices.’ It was a policy that was described as ‘appeasement’ by some members. The controversy led to an unprecedented vote of no confidence in the leadership and ultimately Hudson’s resignation.
The artistic community did come out in force when Chris Grayling, as Lord Chancellor, embarked on a series of attacks on the rights of prisoners. Not only did he cut legal aid for many prisoners, he introduced a book ban as part of a crackdown on what ministers called prisoners’ ‘perks and privileges’. That prompted a campaign by the Howard League for Penal Reform which was backed by Carol Ann Duffy, David Hare, Salman Rushdie and (former prisoner) Jeffrey Archer. ‘It’s not often that David Cameron receives a letter of protest signed by both Vanessa Redgrave and Jeffrey Archer,’ the author Mark Haddon wrote in the Guardian. ‘Paradoxically, and wholly unintentionally, the ban has not only brought people together from opposing ends of the political spectrum in a way that has never happened before, and it has also made many people think about prisoners as human beings.’
Legal aid also had a rather small walk-on part in one of the biggest soap plotlines of last year: the domestic violence storyline in Radio 4’s Archers. After a week-long trial, the jury at Borchester Crown Court found Helen Titchener not guilty of attempting to murder the loathsome Rob. The soap offered a serious-minded treatment of the new offence of coercive control. It sent a clear message to listeners that domestic abuse need not be limited to physical abuse.
However, lawyers accused the show of creating ‘unrealistic’ expectations of our legal system. ‘If any listeners find themselves in custody, they will expect a barrister to turn up to visit them twice a week. This will not happen, especially not on legal aid,’complained Rodney Warren, chairman of the Law Society’s criminal law committee.
The long-running soap was originally conceived as a way of disseminating information to farmers after the Second World War. Legal academic Natalie Byrom, writing in the New Statesman, argued that the scriptwriters ‘missed an opportunity’ to highlight an issue that disproportionately affected rural communities: the lack of availability of legal advice for issues such as divorce, child custody, housing and welfare benefits. Byrom also argued that the scriptwriters failed to make the point that, were Helen to require legal aid to help with her divorce, as a result of LASPO she would find herself need- ing to provide evidence that she was the victim of domestic abuse before she would be eligible to access this support.
‘Our main motivation is to tell a good and captivating story – it is not to champion any particular cause,’ comments Timothy Stimpson who wrote the plotline. ‘I’m a fairly political person. I’ve found myself up on a soapbox in the past, preaching to the choir, to an audience who broadly agree with what I’m thinking anyway, what does it change?’
The mighty sword of justice
Artists, musicians and comedians have backed the Justice Alliance, attended the demos, shared platforms with lawyers, trade unionists, and campaigners, and appeared at fundraisers. Tom Robinson, the veteran singer-songwriter and broadcaster, and North London rapper Awate both performed songs at demos. Awate performed a song about his own experience of being harassed by the police and the importance of proper legal representation in his song Uncontrollable Dopeness. ‘The revelation for me was to hear people getting up to speak to the crowd about being wrongfully imprisoned and to hear them say that it was only legal aid that had got them out,’ Robinson says.
The author of one of the landmark protest songs Glad to be Gay, written about the ‘queer bashing’ and police raids on gay bars in the 1970s. Robinson penned the Mighty Sword of Justice, (possibly) the only song to address our emasculated legal aid system. Robinson laid into the failings of a justice system that lets newspaper editors and wealthy bankers off the hook but fails the likes of Doreen Lawrence:
The mighty sword of justice stands high above us all;
All citizens stand equal before her mighty laws;
But even mighty justice has one almighty flaw;
There is one law for the rich and one law for the poor.
Billy Bragg took a verse attacking undercover cops infiltrating protest movements.
Why did Robinson write it? ‘My only qualifications are that I have a father who was a solicitor back in the 1950s and I can play the bass guitar,’the musician told the Justice Gap.‘Enforcing for the bourgeoisie’ is how Robinson characterizes his father’s legal practice in the song. ‘He came out of the army after the war with no qualifications, did night classes, and eventually did his articles with a local solicitor. He hated it,’ he recalls.
‘I’m going on gut instinct,’ he says. ‘But it seems something has gone very wrong. People need to get angry about it.’
INTERVIEW: ‘Every time I put in a statistic, it felt like a clunk’
The award winning playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz spoke to Jon Robins about her play The Invisible
Many theatre-goers might find issues to do with legal aid dry and unsympathetic. Why take on the LASPO cuts? Madani Younis, artistic director of the Bush theatre, approached me with the idea. His wife is a lawyer so had been experiencing the cuts at close range. I was surprised at the huge sweep of the cuts and felt it was important to give them a human face. Much has been written about the NHS but not so much about legal aid. I felt that the perception of lawyers was often skewed with the image of fat cat lawyers rather than those fighting for social change.
In one interview you say, ‘Every time I put in a statistic, it felt like a clunk.’ How do you bring the issues to life? It was difficult but I met a few people who had had legal aid representation. For example, a woman who had suffered domestic violence who had had fantastic help from Southall Black Sisters. I met with several legal aid lawyers who told me of the people and cases that
their clinics dealt with and immediately the human stories started to surface.
You also spoke about ‘people being punished for being poor’. What did you mean? Society is more and more forgetting its duty of care to all. There seems to be a gloating about poverty
with reality television programmes about bailiffs or ‘Benefits Street’. They seem to highlight the issues of poverty as mass entertainment rather than as a need for reform. Most of our MPs have never experienced poverty, yet they legislate for the poor.
Was Gail based on anyone? Gail was an amalgam of different lawyers but I drew much from a legal aid lawyer, Sue James, who we met at Hammersmith & Fulham Legal Aid centre. Sue’s stories were full of heart and she went above and beyond in the line of care for those she was helping. I wrote Gail before I met Sue but once I’d met Sue I enhanced Gail with various details and stories.
Do you regard The Invisible as ‘campaigning’ theatre – or just theatre? It’s theatre with an aim to open people’s eyes to the vast injustice that is going on in the legal system.
Rebecca Lenkiewicz is an award- winning writer who was the first living female playwright to have her work produced on the Olivier Stage at the National Theatre. Rebecca’s screenplay for the Polish film Ida won awards at various festivals including the London Film Festival and an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film.
This article was published on September 15, 2017
Christabel McCooey and Jon Robins
Christabel is a barrister at Goldsmith Chambers and writes for the Justice Gap. Jon is editor of the Justice Gap