In an interview with the Law Society Gazette this week (week commencing 20 May 2013), the Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, Grayling defended the removal of client choice which is surely an alarming aspect of the Government’s root and branch attack on legal aid, in this way: “I don’t believe that most people who find themselves in our criminal justice system are great connoisseurs of legal skills. We know the people in our prisons and who come into our courts often come from the most difficult and challenged backgrounds.”

These words surely give us an insight into what the Government really thinks about those accused of crime: either too dim to know the difference between a good lawyer and bad one or having too many ‘problems’ such that choice does not really matter for them. These words epitomize the contemptuous and arrogant way in which the Government is proceeding. Why should we take any notice of what Grayling ‘believes’ when it comes to criminal justice or any kind justice for that matter. Let us not forgot that he is the first Lord Chancellor for over 500 years who is not a lawyer. Not only does he himself have no relevant knowledge or experience but he and his ministerial team deliberately chose not to consult with any lawyer before embarking in the campaign to dismantle legal aid. That was confirmed at the Ministry of Justice consultation meeting at Aston University on 16 May 2013. Of course the Government will now say that they are consulting but surely they might have thought to ask one or two people who know about the legal aid system and how it works beforehand. The panel of civil servants who conducted the meeting also manifestly saw nothing wrong with that approach which again is a disturbing sign.

The attack extends beyond criminal justice. In answer to a searching question at the consultation meeting, it was confirmed that the work done on preparing and lodging an application for judicial review will not be paid unless permission is granted.  It will be necessary to trouble the court to consider permission even if the claim has been settled. Any public lawyer knows that the court is not going to do that and even if it could be persuaded to, it will be involving the court in unnecessary expense and time. Judicial review provides a vital check on the misuse of state power and is essential to a nation that seeks to uphold the rule of law, yet these proposals will deprive many vulnerable people of the ability to challenge. 

I was the first in my family to go to university. I began my career in Sheffield Law Centre and I had been moved to come to the Bar after a close family had been falsely accused of theft and the police had conducted an unlawful search of our home (we happened to be in the process of moving home and our possessions were in boxes). The charges were dropped. I saw at first hand the real difference that competent and independent-minded representation can make when the state comes ‘knocking’ on the door. That is now under serious threat and every citizen and lawyer ought to be very concerned. The attack on legal aid should also be seen in the context of other developments which have shut down access to justice- the curtailment of CFAs and the introduction of fees in the employment tribunals to name but two. I encourage all who care about justice to make their voice known.

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