The courts are empty of lawyers. At Westminster, Old Palace Yard is overflowing with them. Barristers and solicitors are spilling out into the road. Bemused tourists stop and take pictures of the English men and women, some in wigs and gowns, shouting on a grey Friday morning in March. This is where the action is.
There is poetry. There is jazz. Oh, and there is a massive effigy of Chris Grayling. Indeed, the day is dominated, literally and figuratively, by the odd, unsettling presence of the Lord Chancellor.
Greg Foxsmith begins proceedings with an indictment of Grayling for conspiracy to destroy the criminal justice system. The huge pink face of the defendant remains impassive. The witnesses for the prosecution are many.
Paul Harris is passionate: “The justice system is in meltdown! This is about unfettered access to justice. The government is reducing the accountability of the state and increasing power over the individual.” Criticising restrictions on judicial review to challenge unlawful state action, he tears into Grayling for refusing to talk to the National Justice Committee. “We won’t stand by and watch you destroy the criminal justice system,” he tells the defendant. “The Ministry of Justice is not fit for purpose! Justice on the cheap is not justice!” The crowd loudly approves.
From over the road in the Houses of Parliament, Black Rod asks for the lawyer gang not to make quite so much noise. Black Rod is given some free legal advice. The lawyer gang make more noise. Chris Grayling’s great claw sways in the breeze, insouciantly dismissing the “Grayling Must Go” banners. Maxine Peake is posing for photos in the crowd. “I’m here because I’m filled with dread and fear of what this government is doing to the weak and the dispossessed in this country,” says the actress from the TV drama, Silk.
Chair of the Criminal Bar Association, Nigel Lithman QC, is up. “It takes centuries and much sacrifice for democracies and justice systems to emerge,” he says. “It’s taking this government the blink of an eye to demolish it. We will be left with one law for the rich and one for the poor! The MoJ is inept!” The evidence is stacking up.
Speech after speech
Shadow Lord Chancellor, Sadiq Khan, takes to the stage. He says Grayling is a woeful mix of blind ambition and wilful ignorance and is the most legally illiterate Lord Chancellor in history. “Chris Grayling believes that the Magna Carta is a bottle of champagne,” he says. “I am with you!” he cries. “We will defeat them!”
Even the Tories are piling in now. Ivan Lawrence QC, 23 years a Conservative MP, says he is ashamed of this government. “I’ve been at the Bar for 50 years and I have never seen a demonstration like this. We will make this government frightened of our resolve. We must make them know if they don’t stop savage cuts they will not be re-elected.” More cheers.
Veteran solicitor Alured Darlington is in the crowd and agrees there’s been nothing like this before in his 51 years of practice. The crowd is getting bigger.
Banners and signs appear. “Keep Calm And Call The Duty Solicitor” says one.
The mother of Gary McKinnon, Janis Sharp, is on the stage. “One day, it could be you needing a lawyer,” she says. “You’ve no idea the relief when a lawyer says they will take your case without asking how much money have you got.”
Now it’s Liberty’s Shami Chakrabarti. “This is Grayling’s day of shame,” she says. “The government are constitutional vandals!” CLSA chair Bill Waddington is scathing too. “It took 800 years to build this system,” he tells Grayling. “Leave it alone!” The swollen head of Chris Grayling looks on, his preternatural smirk undisturbed by the strength of the case against him.
Birmingham Six defendant Paddy Hill is on the attack. “It wasn’t us who caused the financial crisis, it was them and their banker mates,” he yells pointing at Parliament behind him. Now it’s Dave Rowntree. “The government is creating a separate McJustice system for the poor,” he says. Ian Lawrence of NAPO says there must be no privatisation of the probation service. Grayling’s got form he says. “He’s a repeat offender!” he blurts out.
The closing speech is delivered by solicitor Matt Foot, son of journalist Paul Foot and great-grandson of Liberal minister and campaigner for legal rights Isaac Foot. “This is an ideological attack,” he says. “Grayling is picking on the most vulnerable.” He calls for more action. The crowd agree. It’s poetry time. “Rise like lions after slumber!” he exhorts.
Stirred by Shelley, the crowd are on the move, ready to take the fight to the Ministry of Justice. The defendant is secured and heads the march like a terrifying Pied Piper alongside the golden Lady Justice. The jazz band is up and playing, and with their hypnotic accompaniment, we’re off towards Petty France, the Justice Alliance banner leading the way. We stop off at the Liberal Democrat headquarters to drop off a love letter to Simon Hughes, the justice minister. “Simon Hughes, shame on you!” we yell happily.
The march snakes back along the length of Storey Street, lawyers as far as the eye can see. The throng eventually masses outside the Ministry of Justice. An official is popping out for lunch. “Ooh look! It’s a giant Chris Grayling,” she says to her friend. “Quite flattering actually,” she adds.
There is excitement. What will happen next? (The possible criminal liability of a peaceful occupation of the Ministry of Justice goes through a thousand legal brains simultaneously like an old exam question. “Explain what criminal offences have been committed, if any, making reference to mens rea and actus reus.”)
We settle for some old-fashioned well-mannered chanting. “Legal Aid must stay, Grayling must go!” A cry goes up: “Bring me the massive head of Chris Grayling!”
Lady Justice accompanies Paddy Hill inside to deliver a letter to the real Chris Grayling, who declines to make an appearance. The press photographers bundle through the double doors. It’s all a squash. The security guards are tolerant until the gigantic effigy of the Lord Chancellor tries to get in too. To the amusement of the MoJ officials, the Lord Chancellor is barred from entering. Outside, the crowd shout “Grayling Grayling Grayling, out out out!” “Let him in! Grayling in!” is the cry from inside. Now the immense pink head of Chris Grayling is jammed in the doorway of the Ministry of Justice, a sight few would wish to relive.
The chants continue. As no-one can think of a way of pithily shouting, “They say cutback, we say we are prepared to sit down with you to outline a series of savings that can be found across the criminal justice system,” the crowd disperses to reassemble in the Methodist Central Hall for the LCCSA training afternoon, where president Nicola Hill is pleased with the day so far. “The turnout today has been fantastic. We will gather momentum and I hope Chris Grayling will now man up and stop these cuts.”
As Jon Black introduces the speakers, the glowering figure of the Lord Chancellor stares defiantly back upon the assembled delegates. Unperturbed, Richard Atkinson sets out the full horror of Grayling’s reform. “We are peering into the abyss,” he says. The future? A black void appears on the screen. Richard Furlong of 25 Bedford Row advocates the withdrawal of solicitor’s goodwill from the court system. Richard Bentwood of Argent Chambers sets out the “no returns” policy.
The lawyers on the panel in the afternoon are united. Greg Powell graphically tells us that solicitors will be “nipple to nipple” with barristers in the fight to come. “Grayling has to understand that, when we say something, we mean it,” says Nigel Lithman.
Disappointingly, he wasn’t talking about the nipples thing. Bill Waddington says there will be no cracks in unity, a message echoed by Aika Stephenson of Just For Kids and Raj Chada of Hodge Jones and Allen. In January, the courts were closed for half a day. Today, the courts are closed for a full day. To applause, Raj Chada calls for a three-day action next time, and advises Shadow Justice Minister Andy Slaughter to listen to the people in the hall. “Together we will forge unity,” he says.
As people are leaving, Matt Foot surveys the day’s work and is uplifted. “It’s been a wonderful day, there was nowhere left to stand this morning, and the march to the Ministry of Justice filled up the whole road. Solicitors and barristers are very serious about the fight with Grayling.”
This is the poem, Shelley’s The Mask of Anarchy, Matt had quoted earlier:
“Rise like Lions after slumber In unvanquishable number – Shake your chains to earth like dew Which in sleep had fallen on you – Ye are many – they are few.”
- Oliver Lewis, Solicitor, Higher Court Advocate