In the Media, Legal Aid

Thousands of lawyers protest against legal aid cuts

PUBLISHED March 7, 2014

Thousands of criminal lawyers around the country staged a second round of protests against the government's legal aid cuts today, bringing widespread disruption to courts.

In London over 2,000 barristers and solicitors demonstrated outside parliament before marching to the Ministry of Justice.

Speakers addressing the rally in support of the lawyers, included Liberty's director Shami Chakrabarti, Gary McKinnon's mother Janis Sharpe, Birmingham Six member Paddy Hill and shadow justice minister Sadiq Khan.

Kingsley Napley solicitor and drummer with pop group Blur, Dave Rowntree, spoke to give his support, as did actress Maxine Peake, who stars as Martha Costello QC in the BBC's drama Silk.

Peake told the Gazette: 'Anyone in their right mind should be supporting this; it's terrible what they're doing.'

Protesters held aloft a puppet of the justice secretary and outside the Ministry of Justice shouted 'Grayling, Grayling, Grayling, out, out, out', 'Simon Hughes, shame on you', and 'No justice, no peace'.

Paul Harris, former president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors' Association, told the rally the action is not about the cuts, but about the rights of ordinary people to have an unfettered right to equal access to justice.

He said lawyers from both sides of the profession are united in fighting the cuts and the political ethos underpinning them, in which state power increases while its accountability lessens.

The justice system, said Harris, is in 'meltdown' - the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act is having a 'devastating effect' on access to justice, the family courts are grinding to a halt and fees are at an 'irreducible minimum'.

Harris said solicitors face cuts higher than the 17.5% suggested by government. They will only be able to survive by 'slashing costs' and there will be no room for experienced solicitors.

Cuts to Crown court advocacy fees, he said, are 'fatal' to a properly functioning justice system.

The cuts, he said, will result in a two-tier system - one for those with money and one for those without.

Chairman of the Criminal Law Solicitors' Association Bill Waddington called for a halt to the cuts and full review of the criminal justice system.

Chairman of the Criminal Bar Association Nigel Lithman QC, accused Grayling of 'killing' the criminal justice system. The Ministry of Justice, he said, is not fit for purpose and is an embarrassment to the rest of government, which is striving to improve social mobility.

A justice system that has been built up over centuries, has taken the government 'a blink of an eye' to demolish, said Lithman, stating that the whole system in 'revolt'.

For the opposition, Khan told the rally 'We are with you and we'll fight', but he made no commitment to reverse the cuts if Labour is elected to government.

Chakrabarti branded the government pushing the changes 'constitutionally illiterate vandals'.

This is unlikely to be the last action taken against the government's plans. Chakrabarti told the rally: 'You have been too quiet for too long my learned friends. But this day had to come and it may have to come again and again and again.'

Ian Lawrence, general secretary of probation union NAPO, invited the lawyers to co-ordinate their next action with NAPO's planned strikes, scheduled to take place from noon on 31 March and all day on 1 April in protest over plans to privatise the probation service.

A Law Society spokeswoman said: 'We fully understand why some criminal lawyers have reached the point of despair after two decades without increases in legal aid rates, shrinking volumes of work and the MoJ's plans for further cuts.'

An HM Courts & Tribunals Service spokeswoman said the impact of the action was 'limited and manageable' - 98% of listed magistrates' courtrooms sat, as did 71% of Crown courtrooms.

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