In July 2012 we watched Danny Boyle’s spectacular Olympic opening ceremony, the nation cheered during the tribute to the NHS. We all brimmed with pride. Almost Every person sitting at home had been either born in an NHS hospital, or knew someone whose life had been saved by the NHS, or at least had accessed NHS services.
Last year NHS made sure that its 70th birthday celebrations were not unnoticed. The Secretary of State and his ministers wore NHS pin badges with pride
You only have to Google NHS 70 - and there are pages and pages of celebrations. With this in mind I recently looked on the MOJ website; I looked on the legal aid agency website; I looked at the email footers of those Legal aid agency emails; I looked at the legal aid bulletins; I looked at twitter feeds. Not a single mention of this anniversary. I was concerned that there was no sense of pride. No sense of history from its own department.
That is why I welcome today’s tweet from the Ministry of Justice “Today we are celebrating 70 years of Legal Aid. That’s 70 years if dedicated professionals helping those in need...…we are proud to be a part of it “
It is sincerely hoped that after years of savage and needless cuts, they will genuinely reflect on the historical significance of the work carried out by legal aid lawyers and that now more than ever there is a need to retain and encourage legal aid lawyers to bridge the gap between the public and the legal system.
We have heard enough of officials spinning the mantra that we have “the most generous legal aid system in Europe”. Only earlier this month when the issue was raised at PMQs, did the then Prime Minister repeat that 1.6 billion was spent on legal aid, a quarter of the MOJ budget - the rest of which is spent on court buildings, offender management and prisons, administration, judicial and staff salaries, not to mention IT contracts - and only 25% is spent on providing for access to justice to the people who often involuntarily brought through the system. The Government spends over £800bn per year and could easily afford to restore the £1billion cuts made in the past 15 years. It is a political choice not to value access to justice.
No politician would ever boast that 25% of the NHS budget is spent on patient health care.
Even when the government orchestrated The Global Law summit to celebrate 800 years of Magna Carta - the role of legal aid in our justice system was identified and celebrated only by protesters outside the even.
But while the NHS is proud that it is there at the start of life and that it saves lives, it is time to welcome similar sounds from the MOJ or LAA championing that without legal aid there are individuals who would be wrongfully convicted and that there would be wrongful convictions that would not be overturned without legal aid.
Is it that the Government ministers embarrassed that this, the easiest target for government cuts has been pared to the bone and they themselves believe that there is nothing to celebrate?
Or is it that government ministers are uncomfortable about the often unpopular work that is funded by the taxpayer? Such as the when the Daily Express reported of the £0000s of legal aid “given” to a convicted grooming gang. It is time for the Government to defend these cases rather than be complicit in the rhetoric attacking them.
I am pleased that the Government have acknowledged this landmark but it has taken the Justice Alliance to orchestrate the celebrations of Legal Aid’s rich history with their brilliant pamphlet “Legal Aid Matters” which chronicles 70 landmark cases relating to access to justice . The Justice Alliance have also organised a Birthday Celebration this evening outside the ministry of Justice at 7pm tonight. Hopefully the ministers and staff at Petty France will join in so that we can collectively:
· Celebrate the achievements of legal aid lawyers who are the campaigners against miscarriages of justice and who have literally saved the lives of Sally Challen, Winston Silcott, Judith ward, Barry George, Sam Hallam, Liam Allen and many more names that have not made the headlines.
· Celebrate the solicitors whose clients are cleared because someone bothers to listen to their side of the story and investigate and present their case.
· Celebrate the armies of on call duty solicitors whose anti-social hours are dictated by the whim of the police shift patterns, who put in the hard miles through the night so that a 15 year old doesn’t have to remain in a cell longer than needed.
· Celebrate the lawyers who spend all night reviewing previously undisclosed material so that they can clear their clients name at Court the next day.
There is much to be proud of the commitment and dedication of both Criminal and civil legal aid lawyers.
Last November we celebrated the 70th Anniversary of the establishment of the LCCSA, an organisation set up as a supper club by a small group of establishment criminal defence Solicitors said to be anxious that forthcoming Legal aid Act would impact on their private fee income. The organisation grew and evolved, with over 700 hundred members we have been at the forefront of defending access to justice.
To quote one participant in the film that was made to mark the occasion, “we are all proud when we think we have made a difference to someone's life”
And perhaps next time we successfully bid for the Olympics, the opening ceremony may include a choreographed scene depicting legal aid lawyers jumping out of the beds and charging down to the police stations represented by a small number of blue lights in each corner of the stadium.