“Happy birthday to legal aid, Happy Birthday to legal aid!” sang the collection of around 4-500 people who gathered outside the Old Bailey in Central London on Tuesday afternoon last week, to celebrate the 64th birthday of legal aid. The celebratory atmosphere did not just extend to cake being cut, but an impromptu sing a-long with the London Gospel Choir, amongst other musicians, coaxed people out of their offices and into the street.
But it wasn’t just a birthday party which led the Justice Alliance to call the rally. The grand presence of the Old Bailey behind the demonstrators with the epitaph ‘Defend the children of the poor’ was a reminder of the planned government cuts in legal aid which had brought everyone together.
The rally was organised by the ‘Justice Alliance’; a newly formed umbrella organisation for a collection of over 20 organisations which includes legal, trade unions and community groups. It boasts some weighty names; Amnesty International, Sadiq Khan (the Shadow Justice Minister) and Unite can be seen amongst the ‘signatories’ to the statement of the Alliance. The statement includes an acknowledgement that access to justice for all is a ‘vital part of the UK justice system’ and the cuts in legal aid are ‘part of the larger assault on essential parts of the welfare state.’
So what were the main messages to take away from the rally? The first was a unanimous condemnation amongst the speakers of the government’s proposed ‘selling off’ of legal services to private companies like Serco and G4S. This was highlighted well by Ian Lawrence, the Assistant General Secretary with the Probation and Family Court Union (NAPO). He stated the future of probation could be that you are arrested by a police officer paid by Serco, then dealt with by a Probation officer paid by Serco, then given a lawyer paid by Serco, then convicted with a judge paid by Serco. Given this context, the privatisation of legal services would spell the end for fair access to justice.
Secondly, one of the most effective parts of the rally was the number of people who had the courage to stand up and talk about the miscarriages of justice which would occur if the cuts to legal aid were implemented. One example is a man called Raphael Rowe who talked about his life sentence in 1990 for murder as part of the M25 Three. He served 12 years in solitary confinement. However, after gaining access to a criminal legal aid lawyer whilst in prison, he was able to uncover forensic evidence which led to his conviction being overturned in 2000. He is now a BBC investigative journalist. He talked about his life long debt to his criminal lawyers and the legal aid that funded them.
Thirdly, the rally was better organised than its predecessor outside parliament on the 22 May 2013. There was a large PA system and stand for the speakers, visual entertainment and a good choice of location outside the Old Bailey. All this under the banner of the Justice Alliance, which shows the strength of the voice of the opposition to the government’s attack on legal aid when different groups pull together.
Fourthly, there was a final note of action. The resounding applause following the closing speech of Matt Foot, a criminal defence solicitor at Birnberg Peirce and organiser at Justice Alliance stated the Alliance will support strike action, as well as the day of action called for by UK Uncut in the Autumn. Further, with Chris Grayling’s second round of ‘consultations’ in September, there will be a public meeting held and a response formed from the Justice Alliance.
So the message from the day? Rallies are good but they are not enough. It is time to take the next step, and The Justice Alliance supports both civil disobedience and strike action against the cuts in legal aid. Watch this space.