You may or may not be aware of the public demonstration that took place outside Westminster Magistrates Court this morning. It comes following the ongoing decision by the majority of legal aid firms to refuse to take on legal aid work in a courageous reaction to Michael Gove’s despicable proposition to cut fees by a further 8.75%; his first major decision since becoming justice secretary. HJA, amongst others, will once again take to the streets of London to voice their discontent and it is at these sort of moments that the absurdity and desperate necessity of our position dawns.
Firstly, the absurdity. Now, the pictures that can be found after a quick google search of the miner’s strikes of the 1980s pose a formidable sight. Communities in their masses out battling against well-equipped and equally fervent opposition in the police. Flags and placards are plentiful with a single and resolute message shown. One particularly damning picture shows a bloody-nosed man being escorted away from volatile scenes by riot police, very much giving the sense of a do-or-die attitude that was so prevalent during these protests. In quite a stark contrast, I am not sure our own protest gave off this same feeling of sticking it to the man. There was some unruly chanting as well as placards with mocking messages aimed at Mr Gove on display. Encouraging speeches that expressed our message cogently but eventually, once the take-away Starbucks cups had run dry and only crumbs remained of our freshly purchased pastries, our rowdy bunch scattered and the lampoonery aimed at our Lord Chancellor subsided.
Now this may seem to you to be a derogatory depiction of our protest but, in actual fact, it highlights the dire position we have reached under this Conservative government. Unlike Scargill’s miners of the 80s, legal aid lawyers are not natural-born protesters. Many may like to think of themselves as tenacious advocates or mean litigators, but certainly not ones to take action outside the four walls of our offices or the courtroom. The fact that the government has forced this conservative bunch begrudgingly to take to the streets to make our voices heard and yet continue to plan further cuts whilst small legal practices scrap with each other to secure their next legal aid client shows just how dismal the state of affairs has become. The idea of lawyers taking direct action should be an absurd notion, but this government has left us with no alternative.
On a more sobering note, let’s move on to the desperation of our circumstances. This side of the ongoing cuts always remind me of Mr Nigel Evans. This is the story of a Conservative MP who, in 2014, faced allegations of sexual assault. He was ultimately acquitted of all charges but was still met with a severe shock once proceedings had concluded in the form of a rather large bill to pay to his lawyers. The Independent reported:
‘The Ribble Valley MP had previously condemned the rising cost of legal aid and admitted he would probably have voted for the last round of cuts in 2011 had he not been Deputy Speaker at the time.
He said he was stunned to learn he would have to pay his legal fees even if he was acquitted – plus value added tax.’
We will bypass the obvious incompetence that he would have voted for the cuts even though he clearly wasn’t entirely aware of what this would entail or what the effects would be and take a more humanitarian approach, we currently remain soft-centred legal aid lawyers after all. This is a man that has been through a thoroughly traumatic court case and been found not guilty. And yet, he has been punished none the less by having to part with his life-savings (a hefty sum of £130,000) in legal fees with no prospect of seeing this money again despite his exoneration. It is a shame that it requires this sort of incident to occur to a Tory MP before he could realise the gravity the cuts are having but if suffering at the hands of the current justice system is necessary to show how bad it has gotten, perhaps it is worth persisting with the direct action a little longer. Especially as the majority of our clients do not have £130,000 to part with to secure a high standard of representation and depend on a properly functioning justice system.
It would appear that Thursday’s meeting between Mr Gove and the LSCCA gives us cause to be optimistic and that our action is working.