Interview with Matt Foot

PUBLISHED September 25, 2013

Q: What is the Justice Alliance?

A: The Justice Alliance is a coalition of legal and non- legal organisations, community groups and charities, in opposition to the proposals of the Ministry of Justice ? which, if brought in, would decimate access to the law. The beauty of the Alliance is that it combines not only civil and criminal law lawyers, but also lawyers with the communities they represent; the whole point is to show how widespread the opposition is to what the MoJ has proposed.

Q: How did it come about and what is its relationship to the LCCSA?

A: The LCCSA PCT sub-committee found a fantastic spread of skills but, because we were all lawyers, we were open to attack that this was about self-interest. That annoyed me because the reason why most lawyers do the job is because they care about people and, within that, you have some lawyers who care about the communities they look after, such as Kurds or Tamils, or about specific groups, such as juveniles or people suffering with their mental health.

The Haldane Society had raised the need for an umbrella organisation and Stephen Slater, having been to meetings in Parliament, sent an email round the PCT sub-committee, suggesting that we should be joining up with others, such as Probation. I went to the committee meeting and proposed that it should be not a criminal justice alliance but a justice alliance so that it would be about the civil side, as well. Paul Harris was keen on that and it took off from there.

Q: What exactly do you want? The status quo? Status quo circa 1990?

Matt FootA: We?re starting off with the aim of stopping these proposals and protecting this part of the welfare state. At this stage, the most important thing is to protect what we have and so we must focus on stopping this attack, which will require all our resources and energy. Within that argument, we can definitely raise the effects of LASPO and all sorts of terrible things that have gone too far.

Q: At the rally on 22 May, Greg Powell said: "Since the 1970s, legal aid has been a resource for working class people to redress the economic injustice they suffer and it is being rolled back because it has been effective.? Do you agree with that?

A: Greg?s analysis is fantastic. It?s one part of the welfare state, along with all the other parts that are being attacked; there is also the NHS and benefits and other things that we are proud of. But all these things are being undermined, so that it is increasingly the case that people with lots of money will get a better service than those without.

Q: How is the Alliance being set up? Any agreed aims? A website? Do you have a named role in it? What are you doing?

A: We?ve had one big meeting with nearly 50 organisations represented, hosted by the LCCSA, at Friends? House, during June. The outcome was very positive; we drafted a statement of aims ? about access to justice, state accountability and the long- term cost of cuts ?and organisations have started signing up to that. We?re currently hosted on the Save Justice UK website. I don?t have a named role. No one does. We will be formalising things, I am sure. So far, we?ve been having weekly meetings planning the events of 30 July ? a celebration of the anniversary of 30 July 1949 when the Legal Aid Act became law (reported on page 3). After that, we will be continuing to resist and to organise against these proposals.

Since we?ve been formed, there has been a climb- down, though I don?t trust the MoJ even to climb down properly. If they have done so, it has been in response to mass resistance, in the form of 16,000 responses, two good demonstrations and opposition from every quarter of the criminal justice system ? LCCSA, CLSA, CBA, prosecution counsel, DPP and senior to medium level judges. It is difficult to imagine more opposition than there has been within the justice system; and even in Parliament there was barely anyone in the debate who would admit to supporting what has been proposed. In September, things will become clear and we?ll be ready and waiting to deal with any proposals that are unjust.

Q: What would you say to the argument that the legal aid budget has to be reduced as the government has to make savings?

A: I?d say that we?ve already had a massive deficit from the legal aid budget and rates are now at 2006/2007 levels. There have been very serious cuts to legal aid in the last few years, including the fact that we no longer get paid for representing people in the magistrates? courts on committal, which has saved the public purse a lot of money. And there is a real danger that, if you just keep cutting, it will lead to firms going to the wall, miscarriages of justice and very poor representation. The point is: no assessment has been done of the cuts that have been made, which have been very wide- sweeping. And no assessment has been done of what effect it will have if you keep cutting.

If you think of all the big miscarriages of justice, a lot of them involved people who were in vulnerable situations and a lot of them were where there was poor representation by the defence. If you create the circumstances where as little time as possible is spent on a case, then you are recreating the conditions which led to those miscarriages of justice.

The companies they want to bring in, such as Eddie Stobart and G4S, are not doing it for altruistic reasons; they are only doing it for a profit for a few people and that will be at the expense of those ? the lawyers who do the work ? earning a decent wage. In fact, they are more likely to employ case workers so we?ll be back to the position where you have very weak representation in serious matters.

Q: Your family is an interesting one: your great- grandfather, Isaac Foot, was a Liberal MP and Plymouth solicitor; Hugh, your grandfather, became Lord Caradon, ambassador to the UN, and your father, Paul, was a well-known campaigning journalist. How much has your background influenced you?

A: I also had two great-uncles who were both lawyers: Dingle, who I did not get to know so well, and John, who was very close to my dad; he was a Liberal peer who was a lawyer in Plymouth. There are a lot of influences on me and I keep finding out stuff I didn?t know which I?m inspired by. I just found out the other day that my great granddad had introduced the 1929 Poor Prisoners Bill, one of the early legal aid acts, to get proper funds for defendants before trial. I found that very moving. He wa
s in a coalition as a Liberal MP and so he was there at the beginning of this process. And my great uncle Michael was in the 1945 government which introduced the Legal Aid Act in 1949.

And my dad, my greatest influence, devoted a lot of his life to getting justice for people who?d been wrongly imprisoned. The Bridgewater Four case inspired me ? that business of not being believed and not knowing if he was going to succeed. The biggest lesson for me was when they lost the second appeal and I remember feeling for my dad and suggesting he should take a break from it. He was very cross with me. He knew they were innocent and he had to keep fighting. I?ve always regretted that I never got the chance to tell him how sorry I was.

Q: What has been your career path? Who has influenced you, as a solicitor?

A: I went to Hull University and studied politics and then I did various jobs for a number of years before I decided to do law and started at Powell Spencer. I did my police station training under Greg Powell ? a great teacher ? and then did my training contract at Thanki Novy Taube. Then I went to Christian Fisher and, when Mike Fisher left, I went with him. He is a wonderful man and a very shrewd lawyer. He did a lot of Irish cases in the 1970s.

In 2006, I came to Birnberg Peirce. I?m very lucky to work here and consider it the best firm in the country, not because it has the best lawyers, though it has some very good lawyers, but because of the attitude of supporting each other; there is no competition. And it?s unique: everyone over five years qualified takes the same pay. It works on the basis of commitment and talking to each other.

The person who has influenced me the most is Jim Nichol, who was with Taylor Nichol. When I was doing all those other jobs for 10 years, he was the one who encouraged me to go into law. He represented the Bridgewater Four and was a good friend of my father?s. He has always inspired me and continues to do so, a lovely man and very modest as well.

Q: What sort of work do you do now? Give me an example of a case you were pleased to do.

A: I represent people involved in cases about protest. The example would be the protest about tuition fees in 2010. There were several cases involving a number of students on the cusp of going to university and facing very serious charges of violent disorder. They had been over-charged, in fact, and were acquitted by juries at Kingston Crown Court who understood that they were just protesting. I felt that this was what my job was all about. It was very emotional, a moment which could have decimated my clients? careers and sent them to prison or could allow them to continue with their lives and go to university.

Q: Should Armageddon occur and the Grayling proposals come in more or less intact, so that your firm is no more, what will you do with your life?

A: I have no idea. Absolutely none.

Q: Tell me something of your interests outside work 

A: I?m a Plymouth Argyle supporter. There is no good excuse: I wasn?t born there, nor was my father, but my grandfather was and it is a heritage that was forced upon us. I?m trying to force it on my son Joe, who is 11, but he has been corrupted by Arsenal. My daughter Natasha, who is 9, has come to the odd Argyle game and so there may be hope there.