Last updated:2023-09-18
Fighting back- at the Manchester Access to Advice Conference
At a conference in Manchester on Saturday (15th March) organised by the campaigning group, Access to Advice, the cuts to advice services and legal aid were discussed. The mood of the conference, especially amongst the criminal legal aid practitioners attending, was to continue to resist the latest round of cuts and to highlight the impact of the legal aid and other cuts to civil legal advice services.
Speakers at the event, which was attended by advice workers, lawyers, trade unionists and campaigners, included Mark George, Head of Chambers at Garden Court North, Steve Hynes, Director of Legal Action Group (LAG) and Denise McDowell, Director Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit. McDowell told the meeting we “must fight for the people who are marginalised.”
Lord Low, the Chair of the Low Commission, was the keynote speaker in the afternoon session of the conference. He described the recommendations of his report and the declaration agreed by the meeting in its final session included a call to support these, as well as seeking “to extend them wherever possible.” The declaration also called for meetings at the party political conferences in the autumn and to lobby on party manifestos in the lead-up to the general election.
Steve Hynes said that LAG’s opinion polling research consistently showed that over 80% of the public supported public funding for civil legal advice services, “Grayling might not care, but the public do.”  In his speech he described the impact of the government's civil legal aid cuts introduced from 1st April last year. He argued they were hitting "women, black and minority ethnic communities and disabled people hardest.”
Many of the 160 people who attended the gathering on Saturday were concerned about the latest round of cuts to hit criminal legal aid. Mark George gave a passionate speech emphasising the threat to equality before the law that these represented and called for support for the continued campaign against them.
The importance of the planned meeting of partners in criminal legal aid firms to co-ordinate action against the criminal legal aid cuts was emphasised by many, including Rhona Friedman, a solicitor and a member of the Justice Alliance campaign group. She spoke in the afternoon session and said that the Attorney General (AG) had been, “dispatched by the government to wave a big stick” at the Bar Council meeting that morning. According to Friedman the AG, Dominic Grieve MP, had threatened to introduce “one case one fee” if barristers were to continue their protest action against the cuts. This would reduce the Bar's bargaining power as she said this would mean that the “solicitors would hold the purse strings” in criminal cases. She commented that the “marketisiation of public legal services” must be resisted and needed to be seen as part of a “much wider struggle.”
Patrick Harris, a criminal legal aid solicitor in the audience feared that “the new two tier system of contracts for criminal legal aid will have the same effect as competitive tendering” closing firms, but “it is just going to take longer.” He sees the government proposals as being “a major assault on the criminal Justice system.”
In general the mood of the meeting was to resist the criminal legal aid changes by continuing with not accepting returns (cases in which a barrister is no-longer available to represent in a case) and organising further days of action. A barrister in the audience commented that, “we have it in our power to stop this latest set of legal aid cuts and restore funding” and called on lawyers to “to stop feeling defeated. Fight and we will win.”
Whether criminal legal aid barristers and solicitors can force the government into making concessions remains to be seen. If the sentiments expressed at the meeting on Saturday are followed through into continued action, we believe that they will have a realistic chance of doing so.
However, just clinging to the shirt tails of the campaign against the criminal legal aid cuts is very unlikely to bring about any restoration of civil legal aid and other cuts. The sort of sustained campaigning  in the run-up to the general election next year suggested, in what Access to Advice is calling the Manchester Declaration, is more likely to do so.