It’s been a while since I blogged but I feel so strongly about the Criminal Bar Association’s strike to resist the massive legal aid cuts that I had to.
To pre-empt critics: I don’t do legal aid work. I’ve never done a day of it. It doesn’t exist in my areas of practice. This is not about self interest. My interest along with most people in the legal professions is to preserve access to justice. There’s a phrase that’s used more at the Bar these days “One Bar”. The idea that whatever your area of practice you all share the same professional obligations, the same drive to win and regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum that feeling in the pit of your stomach that if they’ve got a fighting chance clients should be allowed a fighting chance regardless of their means.
These cuts will restrict access to Justice. These cuts will restrict the opportunity to join the Criminal Bar to only those with family money behind them. These cuts will reduce the number of working class and BME people coming to the professions. That matters to all of us
It’s to my eternal shame as a Labour Party member that our governments in the past have cut legal aid and taken a swipe at legal aid lawyers. It documented elsewhere that Criminal Lawyers aren’t living a luxurious life. Many Junior Criminal Barristers are not earning a large wage and again and again Government Stats are shown to be skewed (the Bar is not the only victim of this). It’s to all our extreme anger that this Tory and Lib Dem Government are about to deliver a death blow to a system that is essential.
The Legal Aid and Advice Act 1949 was passed at the same time as a raft of legislation by the post war Labour Government we have come to know as the “Welfare State”. To those of us who know the complexity of the Law, to those of us who know how hard it is to be a litigant in person in today’s legal system, Legal Aid is just as important as the NHS. For some of our clients it is a matter of life and death. A means for them to escape domestic violence and abusive relationships. A means to free themselves to prove an overbearing State is mistaken and is wrong. A means that prevents them from having to take the Law into their own hands. Our legal system is perhaps the finest in the world. English and Welsh Barristers are a quality mark across the Common law world. When you travel to conferences across the Common law world other lawyers will always speak of the Professionalism & skill expected at the English and Welsh Bar. The fact that access to this quality representation and advice is open to the poorest in our jurisdiction speaks volumes of us as a civilised people.
I’d like to leave you with two links.
The first link is a film made by local film maker Rob Mitchell & Firstborn Studios & Bristol Criminal Law Practitioners. It is pretty powerful and especially emphasises the impact on the diversity of BME lawyers in the city.
The Second link is the Hansard Debate for the Legal Aid & Advice Bill. Take the time to read it. It makes me proud to be a Barrister and proud of our Country. In the current time of political pygmies like Chris Grayling take a look at the quality of the debate between Hartley Shawcross & David Maxwell Fyfe. (Labour & Conservative Attorney General and Shadow) It’s remarkable that these great political opponents had also been British Prosecutor and Junior at the Nuremberg Trials. At the start of the Second reading: Shawcross describes Legal Aid as:
“the charter of the little man to the British courts of justice. It is a Bill which will open the doors of the courts freely to all persons who may wish to avail themselves of British justice without regard to the question of their wealth or ability to pay.”
That’s something worth fighting for. It’s something worth saving.