A wide range of organisations were represented at the Vigil for Justice, held by the Justice Alliance
and Speak up for Justice
outside the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) yesterday (18 April 2018).
Mark George QC, head of chambers at Garden Court North, told a large audience, which numbered many lawyers and trade unionists among its ranks, that ‘the crisis the justice system faces affects all parts of the system’ and that it was ‘vital for barristers to take the lead’ in the fight for more funding. He explained that the bar was taking direct action again as barristers could no longer provide a good-quality service on the current criminal legal aid rates, but added that this was ‘not just about lawyers’ pay’, as the whole of the criminal justice system ‘must have a proper financial settlement’.
The Criminal Bar Association (CBA) had previously called on its members not to take on any Crown Court cases from 1 April, when the government introduced the new legal aid fees for criminal advocacy. Chris Henley QC, the vice-chair of the CBA, also spoke at the event, saying the CBA action was ‘solid across the country’ and that every day more chambers were joining the boycott of new cases.
Civil legal aid was not forgotten. Mary-Rachel McCabe, a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, gave an impassioned speech about her client, Tony Rice, who emerged from the crowd to join her as she spoke. ‘Daniel Blake
is not just a film script,’ she said, explaining how Rice had been denied benefits while suffering with depression and post-traumatic stress. She pointed out that she’d only been able to assist him because legal aid for housing repossession cases had remained in scope, but there were many more people like him who had been denied assistance as the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 had led to a 99 per cent reduction in legal help for benefits cases. Tony Rice’s case was highlighted by the BBC
earlier this year, after McCabe had tweeted about it.
The shadow justice secretary, Richard Burgon MP (pictured), told the vigil that ‘you are showing you are prepared to take action on behalf of those you represent’ and that ‘hard-won rights are not worth the paper they are written on without the means to enforce them’. He said Labour is ‘with you all the way’.
Trade union leaders Ian Lawrence, from the probation officers and family court staff union and professional association Napo, and Mark Serwotka, from PCS, the UK’s largest civil service union, also addressed the protesters. Serwotka said the cuts to the justice system were part of the government’s ‘scorched earth policy towards the public sector’ and that every citizen ‘should have a right of access to the justice system’. He urged people to join the TUC march and rally, which is due to take place on 12 May
Towards the end of the vigil, as darkness fell, organisers handed out lights and projected ‘Ministry of Injustice’ onto the wall of the MoJ building. A film featuring an interview with Tony Rice was also shown. Matt Foot, a criminal defence solicitor at Birnberg Peirce, explained that the Justice Alliance would be releasing a series of short films to highlight the impact of the legal aid cuts.