Testing times ahead
In the wake of the election result, there has never been a more important time for legal aid lawyers to stay united and fight together to protect access to justice, say YLAL’s new co-chairs Oliver Carter and Rachel Francis.
The outcome of the general election was unexpectedly decisive and we are now governed by the Conservatives alone. We know Michael Gove has replaced Chris Grayling as Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, and that Shailesh Vara remains as legal aid minister.
During the last government, YLAL was heavily involved in the campaign against cuts to legal aid. It has been an incredibly challenging time and we hoped – and still hope – for a new government that will work with the profession to protect and improve access to justice. However, while Labour and the Liberal Democrats promised to urgently review the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, with the former making limited promises to reverse specific reforms to criminal legal aid, judicial review and domestic violence criteria, the only reference to legal aid in the Conservative manifesto was a commitment to ‘continue to review our legal aid systems, so they can continue to provide access to justice in an efficient way’.
Given the direction of travel during the last five years, it seems unlikely that many legal aid lawyers voted for the Conservatives, and Gove’s tenure as Education Secretary hardly gives cause for optimism. However, he does at least represent a fresh start after Grayling’s devastating tenure at 102 Petty France, and we will seek to engage with the new government in an open-minded, proactive and determined manner.
It has been an interesting few months for YLAL. In April, we celebrated our 10th anniversary with an event at London South Bank University. YLAL founder Dr Laura Janes spoke about the origins of the group in a Harlesden office in 2005 and its subsequent development. Baroness Patricia Scotland QC delivered an impassioned and uplifting keynote address, following which the Guardian’s Owen Bowcott chaired a panel debate on access to justice after the election, which featured politicians including Andy Slaughter and Baroness Jenny Jones and lawyers including YLAL’s Connor Johnston. The event was a fantastic success and we hope everyone who attended left feeling as inspired and energised as we did. We will release a short film with highlights of the event on the YLAL website soon.
In May, Katie Brown and Connor Johnston stepped down from their roles as co-chairs of YLAL. Katie and Connor led the group for four years through some exceptionally trying times, providing determined and influential leadership as YLAL campaigned, lobbied, responded to endless government consultations and reviews, expanded with the development of groups outside of London and continued to support junior legal aid lawyers, as well as students hoping to do publicly funded work. We now face the challenge, alongside Deena Blacking as vice-chair, of filling their shoes and continuing YLAL’s vital work.
YLAL conducted a survey to coincide with the group’s 10th anniversary, asking members why they joined the group, what they value about it and how they think it can improve. The results, which will serve as a guide for YLAL’s future strategy, showed that members are united by a commitment to social justice and strongly value the group’s lobbying and campaigning work, our mentoring scheme and the support we provide to each other as a network of young or aspiring lawyers.
Although YLAL is a campaigning organisation, our members are lawyers and students, not trained or experienced campaigners. To meet the challenges ahead, we must make the case for legal aid to everyone, not merely preach to the converted. This is more important than ever under a government committed to further reducing public spending.
Our arguments for the utility of legal aid have never been based solely on ethical or emotional grounds; nevertheless, we must ensure that the campaign for access to justice also stresses the economic and societal impact of legal aid reform. The Conservatives hold themselves out to be a party of pragmatism and of law and order: we must appeal to these impulses as we put the case for legal aid.
Evidence to support us is available and more must be obtained wherever possible. Where it can be shown that cuts are a false economy, we must repeat this relentlessly – perhaps taking our cue from the misleading line repeatedly issued by the Ministry of Justice about this country having ‘one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world’. Prime minister David Cameron professes a desire to govern for the whole country and insists we are all in it together. However, if people feel the justice system is not open to them, the social contract between citizen and state is at risk of breaking down.
‘It is vital that supporters of legal aid speak with a united voice wherever possible – as Baroness Scotland urged at our 10th anniversary event, we as legal aid lawyers must “plot and plan together”.’
It is vital that supporters of legal aid speak with a united voice wherever possible – as Baroness Scotland urged at our 10th anniversary event, we as legal aid lawyers must ‘plot and plan together’. The Justice Alliance has done outstanding work to bring together practitioner organisations, charities, trade unions and other groups, including YLAL, to increase media coverage and public awareness of the damage caused by cuts to legal aid. Within the profession, it is important that solicitors and barristers are not successfully played off against one another by divide-andrule tactics. Legal aid lawyers must stay united and continue to fight for justice.