Today marked a first for protest: the first time in history that lawyers and solicitors had taken action together with the relatively modest step of refusing to attend court for half a day.
Organised by Justice Alliance, the action and the rally brought together diverse representatives of those targeted by cuts to legal aid: from victims of domestic violence to campaigners against the closure of Lewisham hospital, the Howard League for Prison Reform protecting children and young people in prison and the Probation Service – faced by the prospect of fragmentation and privatisation.
The Ministry of Justice has painted the campaign as ‘fat cat’ lawyers protecting exorbitant fees. Instead it is a campaign to protect access to justice for all independent of wealth and to save from attrition a key part of the post war settlement of 1949. Janis Sharp, who fought to save her son Gary McKinnon from extradition to the US (and, she believes, likely suicide) passionately argued that legal aid protects the most vulnerable in society from the assault of the powerful, underpinning the framework of law that protects basic human rights.
Patrick Maguire, the subject of a miscarriage of justice at the age of 13, told how a local solicitor fought to free him from prison. Direct action comes with difficulty to lawyers and the cause has to be a powerful one. But it is one that resonates with the public as supportive toots from passing traffic made clear. The battle against ‘price competitive tendering’ that would have removed the right to choose a solicitor was won after over 100,000 signed a petition and 16,000 returned individual responses to the Ministry of Justice’s consultation.
But cuts from a legal aid system already cut to the bone are going ahead with fees paid to legal aid lawyers reduced by 17.5%, access to judicial review reduced, prisoners denied access to lawyers, and vulnerable groups faced with additional hurdles and blocks to the legal support they desperately need.
Assembled lawyers were sent on their way to a training session – appropriately on protest law – with a call from Justice Alliance founder, solicitor Matt Foot, to emulate ‘the greatest lawyer of them all, Nelson Mandela’ in their refusal to give up the struggle against injustice in all its forms.
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