I join LAG at what feels like a pivotal moment for access to justice. There is much to be done. I bring with me years of experience in the county court on housing duty possession days, battles with the Legal Aid Agency and financial struggles to keep not one but two Law Centres alive. I hope my front-line experience will strengthen LAG’s voice.
My first day saw the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill receive its second reading in the Commons. The bill seeks to curtail the right to protest and has led, inevitably, to much protest itself – some of it in response to the police conduct at the vigil for Sarah Everard. If passed in its current form, the bill will increase the power that the police and the home secretary have to refuse any protest that risks causing a disruption. By its very nature, a demonstration is meant to attract attention and invoke a reaction, so it will effectively end the right to protest
, at least for those whose causes the government disagrees with. As David Lammy MP said in parliament: ‘By giving the police this discretion to use these powers some of the time, it takes away our freedom all of the time’ (Hansard HC Debates vol 691 col 259, 16 March 2021
The PCSC Bill also seeks to increase sentences for vandalising statues and war memorials but does nothing to protect women or ensure their safety. In response, Afua Hirsch tweeted
Since statues are sacrosanct
And women’s bodies are not
We should put up a statue
Every time a woman is assaulted
Creating a field of silent protestors
Who cannot be arrested nor removed
Because they are statues.
The Coronavirus Act 2020 reached its first anniversary on 25 March 2021. At the time of writing, the government has laid 408 coronavirus-related statutory instruments
before parliament. The sheer amount of secondary legislation, and with it the lack of scrutiny and accountability, is astounding but doesn’t seem to be slowing down.
The panel consider that the independence of our judiciary and the high reputation in which it is held internationally should cause the government to think long and hard before seeking to curtail its powers.
Growth in life expectancy has stalled for the first time in 100 years, the rise in foodbank use continues, with health inequalities increasing, and the Trussell Trust has reported
that families with children are twice as likely to be severely food insecure. The British Academy report, The COVID decade: understanding the long-term societal impacts of COVID-19
(March 2021) notes that ‘the pandemic has exposed, exacerbated and solidified existing inequalities in society’ (page 10) and the impact will ‘cast a long shadow into the future – perhaps longer than a decade’ (page 6).
Better news came from the High Court, which ruled that the Department for Work and Pensions’ blanket policy of making maximum deductions for court fines from universal credit was unlawful (R (Blundell and others) v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions  EWHC 608 (Admin)
). The case, taken by Shelter and Hackney Community Law Centre, highlighted the policy of deducting 30 per cent of the monthly universal credit allowance regardless of personal circumstances, leaving many vulnerable claimants without enough money to meet the cost of food and heating.
I seem to have reached the word limit for my first editorial – it is hard to stop because there is so much to say (I haven’t even mentioned the Fire Safety Bill
or the Domestic Abuse Bill
) but I see this as just the start of a conversation. And I want to listen too. We need more diverse voices to feed into the discussion of how access to justice is delivered. LAG is in a unique position to shape that conversation and unify. When we come together, we are stronger, and strength is what we need to fight the relentless attacks on access to justice.
I would like to thank Carol Storer and all the previous directors of LAG. I am stepping into big shoes. Although I know Esther through publishing my books and Louise from writing for Legal Action, I am looking forward to working with all the staff and trustees to pursue LAG’s vision of a legal system that upholds equality and social justice for all. I have been overwhelmed by all the messages of support I have received at the news of my appointment. I will do my best to live up to the challenge.
Fiona Bawdon suggests in Justice Matters: essays from the pandemic
(LAG, September 2020) that ‘we need to start talking less about how little legal aid costs, and more about how much it can do’ (page 3); that equally applies to access to justice. There is much to be done.