Magna Carta – what is there left to celebrate?

With 12 months to go before the Magna Carta’s 800th anniversary, Jonathan Black makes the case for justice.

To the general public the word solicitor can have a tendency to conjure up an image of a Dickensian Tulkinghorn, sat stiffly behind the oak desk, with a pile of dusty papers under a brass desk lamp. The public have a generic view of our profession, such that I, a criminal defence specialist, am asked by a neighbour to advise on a divorce; and my friend, a specialist in M&A, gets asked by the man who runs a dry cleaners about his drink/driving case.

The assumption is that all solicitors should be in a position to broadly advise across all areas. The fact is we can’t, notwithstanding that we completed the same exams, belong to the Law Society, and are subject to the same regulatory requirements.

Consequently although all solicitors, we are almost like different professions within one profession. Many legal aid lawyers might have started off life with aspirations to practice in the City, and similarly many City lawyers may have had idealistic notions of working for community high street firms.

What we have in common though is that we studied law, are all aware of the rule of law and access to justice. Many who chose the City would have escaped the attack by the Lord Chancellor on access to justice and equality of arms. They may have been aware that the Government are dressing this up as essential for cuts but the reality is, this is an ideological attack seeking to destroy any ability for those of limited means to challenge the power of the state.

For many of us sat in those early law lectures that was precisely what might have excited us about working in the legal profession. The arid lectures on equity and trust and company law were punctuated by tales of drunks killing each other, and the mentally incapacitated setting fire to sheds along with authorities on subversive publications and the unreasonable acts of public authority.

However, this Government’s proposal means that there is now a two-tier justice system, those who can pay and those who cannot. The courts are being cluttered up by many litigants in person, abused partners having to face their abuser in court unrepresented, grandmothers seeking to gain access or custody to their grandchildren for their own protection not entitled to legal aid, young prisoners who have been in and out of care all of their life with no feature of stability, no longer entitled to legal aid to try and find stable housing upon their release from custody. Perhaps they don’t deserve sympathy or help, but perhaps the consequence is them remaining embroiled in a spiral of criminality which cannot be good for anyone.

These proposals affect everyone and anyone. For the past year the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association (LCCSA) and Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association (CLSA) have been working tirelessly to persuade the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) that further cuts were not needed, the drop in crime figures coupled with the cuts previously made demonstrate that savings in criminal legal aid have already been made.

Like a man on a mission the Lord Chancellor, the first with no legal experience for 400 years, continuously repeats his mantra that ours is the most expensive system in the world. His current proposals take a current rate of less than £55 per hour or £250 for a fixed plea spending a full day in a police station, and he seeks to remove 17.5 per cent from that figure.

He also wishes to remove the high street firm by reducing the number of contracts available for the provision of duty solicitor services from 1,600 to 525. He has introduced a residents’ test for applicants for legal aid, and placed barriers in the way of judicial review applications.

This Government is intent on removing the high street firm that serves its community, and removing the right of the individual to challenge the state and hold it to account; It is about restricting the individual’s right to choose their own solicitor to protect their liberty. It will be about a system where a firm’s profitability will depend on how quickly they do the case and how little they can the pay the lawyer/inexperienced trainee to prepare it.

The shallow irony is that in 12 months’ time, Grayling looks to showcase London as a centre of legal excellence to the rest of the world as part of the Magna Carta celebrations. These proposals can’t take you further away from the principles upon which that historical treaty was founded upon in nearly 800 years ago in 1215.

The LCCSA and CLSA, run almost entirely by volunteers, are judicially reviewing the Government’s proposals on legal aid reform, having obtained positive advice from a leading judicial review silk that the consultation process was unlawful. The Government failed to disclose economic reports it had obtained as part of the consultation which contained a number of baseless and incorrect assumptions about how the market might work.

We have raised a substantial amount of money to fund this judicial review and we have issued proceedings, but we need more (you can donate here). If you would like a member of the above associations to address your firm or representative group about what is under threat through these proposals we would be happy to do so.

This judicial review is one small part of the battle. Legal aid lawyers deserve to be celebrated. Their work often goes unnoticed, unrewarded, and their contribution not properly reflected. This type of work is very different to other legal work but is as equally as important; it is about individuals and their rights often trying to defend themselves from state investigation or prosecution.

Last Thursday 5 June the Legal Aid Practitioner Group held their legal aid awards evening honouring a number of legal aid lawyers who had worked tirelessly on behalf of their clients and the cause. Elkin Abrahamson, who has represented a number of the Hillsborough victims for over 20 years for little or no pay, was given the award for outstanding achievement for his tireless pursuit for justice. Also honoured were family, welfare and criminal lawyers amongst others who do their best to preserve access to justice in ever increasing difficult conditions.

If you need any more convincing that legal aid matters, spare five minutes and watch this powerful film setting out why legal aid is so important to our justice system and for a fairer society.

#iamforjustice

Jonathan Black is vice-president of the LCCSA and a partner at BSB Solicitors