A angry public meeting in Manchester in September 2014 has sought to defend and build publicly funded legal advice and to reverse cuts to legal aid and legal advice services which deny us access to justice. 100 people attended the event, which was organised by Justice Alliance North and Access to Advice to coincide with the Labour Party Conference and to press Labour to make positive policy commitments.
Describing Legal Aid as ‘one of the core principles of the welfare state’, Shadow Justice Minister Andy Slaughter MP told the meeting that access to legal redress is ‘crucial’ for the ordinary citizen. He said that a future Labour government would be radical and robust, ‘tilting the balance back in favour of the people’. He committed Labour to several short-term actions and pledged to defend the Human Rights Act. He said that the next tranche of cuts due for criminal legal representation must be looked at again, that Labour can halt changes on conditional fee arrangements and will defend the right to Judicial Review. Mr Slaughter offered no concrete commitments on restoring Legal Aid, saying that it may take longer than one Parliament to ‘restore confidence in the justice system’ and that the cuts will not be restored in full.
“We did have a justice system in this country which is something we could be very proud of and something we should be able to be proud of again” – Andy Slaughter MP
Fellow speaker Denise McDowell, director of the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit, said there were 35 people queuing outside her doors for advice at 7.30 that morning and that such demands were unacceptable. She also told the room that while in 2012 – 2013 there were 870 not-for-profit providers with a legal aid contract, in 2013 – 2014 there were just 95 and the sector is being devastated. Many at the meeting also spoke of the closure of advice services and ‘advice deserts’. Ms McDowell referred to the multiple successful and ongoing judicial reviews brought by non-governmental organisations in recent months, including cases challenging exceptional case funding, criminal legal aid contracts, the residence test the detained fast track regime, and the domestic violence gateway.
“We have to find ways of fighting back. We want commitments and hope for the future” – Denise McDowell
Cris McCurley, a leading family law solicitor from Ben Hoare Bell, said that women and children whose very lives are threatened are not getting legal aid and that when the government said that all victims of domestic violence would get legal aid it was a ‘complete lie’. She said that less than 1% of family applications for exceptional cases funding
have been successful. Many of those attending the meeting also raised the issues of the impacts of the cuts on women, particularly victims of domestic violence and undocumented migrant women.
“The changes to legal aid are not saving money. We have to hold Labour to account if they return to power” – Cris McCurley
Members of the public who had received free legal advice gave powerful evidence in two short films made for Justice Alliance on how they did not know how they would have survived without that assistance. Those interviewed described legal issues ranging from wrongful conviction to a claim brought by a rape survivor to the case of a father trying to gain contact with his child.
“Legal aid is needed otherwise people are not going to know which way to turn” – Local Resident
The meeting was held during the Labour Party Conference to find out Labour’s response to the cuts to legal aid and legal advice services.
Mr Slaughter pledged that Labour would ‘prioritise issues we can quickly correct’, such as:
● The ‘evidence tests’ for domestic violence, when legal aid is sought, and the lack of advice services.
● The ‘residence test’ for legal aid for people who have come to the UK in recent years.
● Procedures for ‘exceptional cases’ and the ‘telephone gateway’ for legal aid, which Mr Slaughter described as ‘dysfunctional’.
He said that these changes would not cost much money and generally don’t need legislation, while under the Coalition government the cuts on these issues were ‘nothing to do with savings’ but were ‘ideological’. Mr Slaughter expressed strong concerns that the introduction of fees for Employment Tribunals has led to a drop of 80% in claims, that mediations in family law cases have plummeted and that the situation in prisons and probation is ‘extremely dire’, ‘putting many at risk’.
Mr Slaughter sought to make alternative approaches such as using digital communications, Alternative Dispute Resolution mechanisms, or other mediations, effective. He said Labour would defend the Human Rights Act and protections under European legislation, in contrast to expected plans from the Conservative Party. He noted that Labour would have access to civil servants in November 2014 and that they would bring forward more details about legal aid and advice ahead of the next General Election.
The mood of the meeting and reaction to it affirmed that it was well worth doing, with many excellent contributions from the people there. Some people acknowledged that the Shadow Justice Minister had noted most concerns raised, including over undocumented migrant women, and had said he ‘shared the values’ of people present. He had also affirmed that ‘early advice’ avoids substantial harms, risks and costs.
Other people at the meeting were critical that Mr Slaughter ruled out full restoration of the cuts made by the Coalition Government to Legal Aid, and offered little by way of pledges or detail on renewal, beyond promising that there would be ‘more flesh on the bones’ of concrete proposals before the General Election due in 2015. Some have suggested that lobbying politicians just hasn’t worked, expressing deep distrust, and that fresh thinking is needed, particularly through the use of social media or direct action.
Justice Alliance North and Access to Advice have been very active in campaigning for free, publicly funded legal advice services and Legal Aid for several years. We will use all possible strategies and tactics to promote these aims which are about social justice and the right to fair, non-exploitative legal redress. We need you to offer your ideas, testimony, energies and skills. Please share your experiences or thoughts, over civil wrongs, or where people are treated under errant criminal charges, our striving for justice, safety and opportunity continues. Join us or make links!