Authors:James Sandbach
Last updated:2023-09-18
Voices for justice need to use language politicians will hear
The Justice Alliance held a heartening rally at Conway Hall on 6 January. Tremendous passion was on display from advocates for legal aid and access to justice.
Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti set the scene as first speaker, denouncing David Cameron and his fellow Conservative MPs for demonising law firm Leigh Day at PM’s Questions. It was, she said, further evidence of the government’s ideological hostility towards public interest legal work. She was followed by Helen Steel, who was tricked into a relationship with an undercover police officer and who also won the McLibel case on ECHR art 6, and Marcia Rigg (sister of Sean, who died in police custody). Pragna Patel from Southall Black Sisters and Emma Scott from Rights of Women condemned the residence test and domestic violence gateways.
The star turn for the second half of the evening was Jeremy Corbyn, who told the meeting: ‘It’s a basic human right to have access to justice.’ Prior to Corbyn taking the stage, Laura Janes of Scott-Moncrieff & Associates and the Howard League for Penal Reform put in a strong plea for prison law cases; Edward Fail, Bradshaw & Waterson’s Paul Harris denounced the recent crime tender exercise, which saw the Legal Aid Agency having to admit it scored his firm’s bid wrongly; and Awate Suleiman, a refugee and rapper who won four cases against the police, praised the work of his lawyer. Helena Kennedy QC then spoke about legal aid being more than ‘a part of the welfare system’ but about the rule of law and justice.
It’s great to see the year start off with such a positive event, but as a veteran of past legal aid campaigns I’d also strike a cautionary note. ‘Voices for justice’ may not translate into votes for justice or policies for justice. In LAG’s view, the Justice Alliance and a wide range of charities, advice and legal organisations need to come together with a broad-based platform of new ideas on how to improve access to justice, alongside a dedicated campaign function to deliver well-presented and researched briefings to politicians, media, and policy- and opinion-formers on a weekly, if not daily, basis. Conversations that take place within our own justice community, often between informed specialists, do little to weave a popular narrative around access to justice or to heighten awareness of the issues among the general population, let alone persuade current policy-makers why they should ease up on the cuts (to Michael Gove’s credit he appears to have resisted pressure for a further raid on the legal aid budget).
It is the current lord chancellor we need to be talking to not the spoof version.
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It is the current lord chancellor we need to be talking to and pitching to, not the spoof version on display at the rally (pictured). We urgently need a new settlement for legal aid that can endure beyond one party, parliament or government. Much of the Low Commission’s work has been to explore and develop new approaches; we hope these may be able to provide the basis for such a settlement. The legal aid movement also needs to recognise that not all problems can be solved by publicly funded lawyers, so the access to justice issue needs to be considered alongside a robust strategy for funding and delivering sustainable advice and redress services. Legal aid is central to access to justice, but access to justice is more than just legal aid: it is about the citizens’ experiences, and their pathways through complex institutions that enable wrongs to be put right. So we need to be working for improvements across the whole system.