Paddy Hill, spent 16 years in prison for the Birmingham Pub bombings before his sentence was quashed and Janis Sharp, mother of computer hacker Gary McKinnon, fought tirelessly to prevent his extradition to the US. Today they stood together with hundreds of lawyers and campaigners outside Parliament to protest at the government’s ongoing cuts to legal aid. The ‘Grayling Day’ demo – organised by the Justice Alliance – marked an unprecedented full-day walk-out by thousands of criminal solicitors and barristers at courts all over England and Wales.
Minister of Injustice
‘If I was in prison today, I wouldn’t get legal aid,’ Paddy Hill told the demo. ‘I would still be rotting in prison.’ Pointing to the Houses of Parliament behind him as he addressed the crowd of lawyers, Hill said: ‘Instead of cutting legal aid, let’s get rid of those bastards behind us…Grayling should be called the Minister of Injustice.’ Hill’s suggestion that the lawyers ‘should come out and strike for good until things change’ was met with rapturous applause.
Janis Sharp’s speech received the loudest cheer of the day as she warned that the legal aid cuts would lead to ordinary people having to seek advice from lawyers who ‘don’t know their arse from their elbow’ because they can’t afford to pay for good quality legal representation. ‘These cuts are not party political,’ Sharp added. ‘They have been ongoing since 1997. This isn’t good enough. We must stop this.’
Speaking to the Justice Alliance, consultant on racial equality and community engagement Stafford Scott said: “The current proposals will impact negatively on poor communities, especially minority communities who already suffer from stereotyping and stigmatisation within the judicial and legal processes. Holding the police and the Independent Police Complaints Commission to account when they get things wrong or act outside of the law is a crucial requirement in a truly democratic society.
The Government is seeking to trick the public into thinking that the cuts are about saving money and cutting barristers fees but we believe the changes are simply ideological. We are heading towards state impunity where the truth in cases like that of Charles de Menezes, Ian Tomlinson and Mark Duggan will never be exposed. These cases stand out because of the work of legal aid lawyers together with the families that fought the power of the state and highlighted the injustices within these cases. In future people will not be entitled to legal aid or there won’t exist the legal aid lawyers with the time, skills and experience to ensure that justice is done.
Legal aid lawyers help ordinary people to challenge the police when they or their family member is wrongly arrested, subjected to unlawful stop and search or racist treatment by the police. Leaving ordinary people to challenge the might of the state on their own without lawyers is not equality before the law and will not ensure that we have an accountable police service.”
Following the demo outside parliament, Paddy Hill and Janis Sharp led the crowd on a march to Liberal Democrat HQ,where they delivered a letter to Nick Clegg telling him that the legal aid cuts are a ‘disgrace’. They also delivered over 100 testimonials from charities, unions and campaign groups to the LibDems, demanding that the party stay the proposed cuts to legal aid.
Paddy Hill said in his letter:
“The cuts the government are making to the legal aid are a disgrace. The results of these cuts will mean that more innocent people will go to jail. It seems that they do not learn from the past. It was bad representation that [got] me wrongly convicted. The solicitor that represented me…was totally out of his depth…they should ensur[e] we protect innocent people from going to prison.”
Janis Sharp joined the group handing in testimonials and said
”I ask the Liberal Democrats to persuade Chris Grayling to reverse the cuts that will plunge our judicial system back to the Dickensian age. The cuts will disadvantage the poor and vulnerable and the coalition must be unaware of the serious consequences otherwise they would not support them. There is no shame in doing a u-turn and as we all know only too well, it’s never too late to do the right thing. Cuts to legal aid would affect generations to come: your children, your grandchildren and their grandchildren, and no one knows when their family might need it. Quality, expert legal representation kept Gary here for years, until legal and medical expertise and the voice of the people, the media and ultimately the brave intervention of politicians saved Gary’s life.”
Laura Janes from the Howard League for Penal Reform spoke to the crowd before leading charities and community groups into Lib Dem HQ where a bemused security guard read the testimonials.
Matt Foot, co-founder of the Justice Alliance states that the Liberal Democrat leaders had failed to respond to their own party and supporters following the near unanimous motion passed at their annual conference calling for cuts to be paused; they were failing to prevent the decimation of legal aid; and they were failing to stand up to Chris Grayling.
Matt Foot explains that Simon Hughes MP appears to have been silenced by Grayling since his promotion to a ministerial role. Prior to that he met the Justice Alliance in November 2013 and said he was not persuaded the government had the right to introduce the residence test. He has also promised the Justice Alliance he would meet with Nick Clegg and other senior ministers after receiving a document of testimonials from over 100 charities and groups opposed to the cuts. In addition Hughes is part of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which produced a report highly critical of the cuts to legal aid. Foot said that it was time the Liberal Democrats used the overwhelming mandate they had to halt these cuts to stop a Minister of Justice who has no mandate and is bent on an ideological mission to strengthen the law in favour of the state against the individual.
The lawyers then marched to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), where a group of the protestors – again led by Paddy Hill – took over the ground floor of the building, chanting ‘Grayling must go, legal aid must stay.’ Ironically security would NOT let Grayling into the MoJ.
The star of legal television drama ‘Silk’, Maxine Peake even made an appearance at the demo,telling Grayling: ‘Hands off the justice system – and stop bullying the poor and dispossessed.’
ALL PHOTOS © Tom Elkins www.threepractices.com