Authors:Dr Laura Janes
Last updated:2023-09-18
Editorial: War and justice: reflections as LAG turns 50
Marc Bloomfield
Description: Lady Justice close up (Hermann Traub_Pixabay)
It is no coincidence that the beginning of Legal Action Group was firmly rooted, in the words of its founder, Andrew Phillips, in a sense of ‘common purpose’ that pervaded the national psyche after the second world war, which he described at our 50th birthday party as ‘a world where if you were poor you were offering to lay down your life as if you were money-rich’.
It was in the shadow of the second world war that nations united to agree on minimum standards of dignity to be afforded to all human beings through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a mechanism to make them enforceable in Europe under the European Convention on Human Rights. International bodies were formed to forge ever closer links between states to prevent the recurrence of war on such a scale. It was also in the wake of the war that the Rushcliffe Committee made its recommendations on legal aid. As Professor AL Goodhart noted in his preface to Robert Egerton’s 1945 book, Legal aid: ‘It was the army which first realised it was necessary to furnish free legal advice to the soldiers if their morale was not to be affected; it has taken the war to bring the lesson home to those in authority.’
I wrote my speech for LAG’s 50th before I turned on the radio that morning on 24 February 2022 and heard about the invasion of Ukraine. Since then, the brutal suffering of so many people has become a painful backdrop to our daily lives. It has also shone a light on how little has been learned from the lessons of the second world war and how much has regressed since then.
Far from cementing our links with neighbours, the state has been dismantling them to the point where, as other countries in Europe have welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees, the UK has been derided for accepting tiny numbers, with one Home Office minister indicating on Twitter that Ukrainians would be welcome as fruit pickers, who have, of course, been in short supply since Brexit. The legal community has had to step in to provide urgent advice to help those fleeing from harm to navigate the complex bureaucracy of the immigration system. Between 28 February and 14 March, the newly formed Ukraine Advice Project UK registered 430 volunteer lawyers and matched 740 enquiries with them (see page 6). As Jawaid Luqmani and Sue Willman describe in this issue, there has been no shortage in recent decades of labyrinthine and complex changes to immigration law to keep both lawyers and LAG busy (see page 12).
Instead of removing barriers, the government seems to have poured energy into a scheme to encourage people to take those fleeing Ukraine into their homes: while this public goodwill is obviously commendable, it seems little thought has been given to the potential legal and safety implications of it, or how it will be sustained for those of limited means as the cost of living continues to rise. Robina Qureshi, CEO of Positive Action in Housing, a Scottish NGO, has described the scheme as a ‘smokescreen’ and a distraction from what really needs to happen, which is to remove the visa requirement for Ukrainians, as other European countries have done.1Jemma Crew, ‘Government “unleashing chaos” with Homes for Ukraine refugee scheme’, Evening Standard, 17 March 2022. The sense of common purpose that led to the creation of today’s legal aid system has been diverted from focusing on state responsibility to ensure equality before the law to encouraging individual acts of support.
As tragedy unfolds in Ukraine, the government is pushing ahead with its plans to scrap the Human Rights Act 1998, introducing the regressive Nationality and Borders Bill and Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, while failing to put in place any concrete actions in response to a series of police scandals. The latest update on police misconduct from Stephen Cragg QC and Tony Murphy with new co-authors Carolynn Gallwey and Maya Sikand QC (see page 30) comes hot on the heels of the High Court’s decision that the police acted unlawfully in banning the vigil for Sarah Everard (see page 5) and the horrific exposé of what happened to Child Q, a Black girl who was illegally strip-searched at school by police when teachers suspected she smelled of cannabis.
Amidst the headlines on Ukraine, the Ministry of Justice slipped out two major legal aid announcements on 15 March (see page 4). They reveal the government’s chaotic, inconsistent and minimalist approach to justice. The changes to criminal legal aid are the bare minimum and restricted only to the government’s priority of clearing the criminal court backlog, leaving prison law out entirely. The proposed financial eligibility changes to legal aid are welcome but will affect only a small proportion of people each year and are of little use in terms of increasing access to justice if the entire system remains unsustainable.2For further analysis of the announcements, see the author’s blog post.
Whereas the second world war saw the beginning of a new justice, the response to the current crisis reveals the extent to which the UK has rejected those progressive intentions, and how much LAG, its supporters and friends are needed to unite for justice and the best possible service for those in need.
1     Jemma Crew, ‘Government “unleashing chaos” with Homes for Ukraine refugee scheme’, Evening Standard, 17 March 2022. »
2     For further analysis of the announcements, see the author’s blog post»