“If you start cutting legal aid you start cutting people off from justice … And that’s dangerous … You may get them taking the law into their own hands.”
Lord Neuberger, the UK’s most senior Judge.
More cuts in legal aid are on the way unless we stop them. Cuts already passed include: the end of legal aid for most immigration, welfare benefits, housing, child custody, clinical negligence, employment, housing, debt and education.
Cuts to legal aid disproportionately affect women and people of colour including because our incomes are generally lower than white men’s. Women carry a disproportionate burden of justice work. As victims of rape and domestic violence we fight to get injunctions and to challenge police and CPS decisions not to prosecute our attackers. But we are also on the front line defending loved ones. Women of colour, who must deal with the disastrous personal and social effects of racism, carry a particular burden.
“While it is public knowledge that people of colour, and particularly young men of colour, are regularly harassed, falsely arrested and beaten by the police, there is rarely a mention of the women – mothers and sisters, wives and lovers – who go back and forth to courts and prisons, who organise defence committees and attend their meetings sometimes on winter nights after long days cleaning hospitals; or who deliver to prison cells, along with home cooking and cigarettes (and at times unwelcome words of advice), the laundered shirts, so that the accused – son, brother, husband or lover – can appear before his persecutors dressed in the community’s care and support.”(Sex, Race and Class: The Perspective of Winning, Selma James, 2012 p.178-9)
Some of the proposals target immigrant people. But we can be sure that if the government gets away with this, the same policies can, at any time, be extended to everyone. Asylum seekers were the first to have benefits replaced with vouchers, and be dispersed out of London – now everyone is at risk.
The proposed changes mean that:
· Solicitors will have to bid for criminal cases and the lowest bidder will get appointed, not the lawyer of your choice, regardless of experience or lack of it. About 75% of lawyers now doing legal aid work will no longer be able to; the 25% left will have a lot less time to spend on cases. The quality of representation (sometimes already bad) will get even worse and it will no longer be possible to get help from a firm that specializes in a particular area of law – for example, if you are arrested whilst protesting. (Some corporations who are likely to bid for legal work, like G4S, are already running prisons and deporting people so have a vested interest in people being convicted and imprisoned. Protests against G4S, for the death of JimmyMubenga and other atrocities, are demanding that the corporation be barred from public service work. Others like trucking company Eddie Stobart have no legal experience at all.)
· It will be harder, in most cases impossible, to make an application for Judicial Review (JR). Legal aid will now only be available if a judge grants permission. None of the preparation work to convince the court you need a JR will be funded. Legal firms will have to cover these costs in the hope that legal aid will later be granted – many will be put off from taking cases. JRs are a crucial way you can challenge decisions of the state – the police, the Ministry of Justice, the Crown Prosecution Service, the Independent Police Complaint Commission, UKBA, local authorities, etc. While very senior lawyers represent the government in JRs, and their fees aren’t being cut, most victims of state violence and illegality will be unable to afford any lawyer.
· Prisoners will have no right to a lawyer to help them with many of the problems they face inside jail, even if what the prison has done is illegal and even if it means being imprisoned for longer. If you are in prison you won’t be able to get legal help to access rehabilitation courses, challenge bullying and violence from guards, how you are categorized (A, B, etc.) or being held in solitary; yet a wrong categorization and solitary can add years to a sentence and seriously affect your health. There are no exemptions, not even for children, disabled or mentally ill prisoners. Prisoners will be expected to represent themselves, without any outside legal help, through an notoriously unjust prison complaint system, against the very people who are persecuting them. Reprisals are already common against “jailhouse lawyers”. Forty percent of prisoners face additional discrimination because of low literacy skills.
· People who have not been in the UK lawfully for at least 12 months won’t get legal aid for any civil action. Only people with current asylum claims will qualify. If your asylum claim is refused or you don’t have settled legal status, you won’t be entitled to civil legal aid – even if you have compelling evidence of rape or other torture, or have lived in the UK for years. No matter what happens to you – you are made homeless, assaulted by the police, detained, you need to apply for bail or to challenge illegal detention – there’s no legal aid for you. Only the rich will be able to afford legal action. Family members of people killed by the authorities won’t get legal aid for representation at the inquest if they fail the residence test. A woman recently arrived as a spouse in the UK who suffers domestic violence will not be entitled to legal aid to apply for an injunction.
· Secret courts without a lawyer – in the UK! If you are suspected of (unproven) links with ‘terrorism’ or other ‘national security’ issues, you will face deportation proceedings in a special court which can use secret evidence which is not shown to you. If you fail the residence test you will not receive legal aid.
· Fees are being cut for experts providing medical and psychological reports, which are often crucial togetting justice. Fewer experts will be ready to do legal aid work and the quality of the reports may suffer. Black Women’s Rape Action Project and Women Against Rape found that women with expert reports corroborating the evidence in their asylum claim were six times more likely to win on appeal.
1. Sign the petition: http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/48628
- Write to your local paper/member of parliament to say how you will be affected. Have you ever challenged a housing or benefit or child custody decision? Have you ever challenged your treatment by the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, the IPPC? Have you ever challenged detention or your treatment inside prison? Have you ever had to change lawyers because your lawyer was no good? What would have happened if you hadn’t been able to get or change lawyers?
3. Check out Save UK Justice website and this blog: http://savelegalaid.wordpress.com/where you can submit your story.