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Over 120 charities and organisations including Amnesty UK, Liberty and The Children’s Society signed a letter calling for a halt to legal aid cuts. They were joined by Philippe Sands QC outside Lib Dem HQ to deliver the letter to Simon Hughes MP.
Philippe Sands QC who publicly resigned over secret courts, met Simon Hughes MP who received the letter on behalf of the party, himself a critic of the proposed Residence Test and Judicial Review changes. Professor Sands stated that there seemed to be a disconnect between the membership of the party and a small group at the top. What, he asked, can be done to put pressure on those who can halt these devastating proposals like Nick Clegg and Tom Mcnally. Simon Hughes MP put out a plea to those concerned about the proposals, asking them to contact him next week before he meets with Nick Clegg MP to talk about legal aid.
The letter, ‘Justice Deserves LibDems Stay Legal Aid Proposals’ was presented by recipients of legal aid who would be excluded from help by the proposals including Julene, mother of two young children, who said “Before I had a legal aid solicitor helping me, social services would ignore me. I have two young children and we were facing eviction. I was struggling with the rent and I had no idea what to do. When I went to court they gave me a list of legal aid solicitors and told me I needed one. My solicitor sorted things out and it was only through her that we could get social services to listen. Without legal aid me and my children would be homeless. I am very worried for people like me who would be excluded from help because of the residence test.”
Matt Foot, solicitor and founder of Justice Alliance, said: “This letter shows the widespread opposition to Grayling’s proposals. They will have a devastating effect on the rights of ordinary people in this country and undermine the ability to challenge unlawful government actions, which the success of Lewisham Hospital campaigners has shows is vital. These proposals do not have a mandate. The Lib Dems voted unanimously for a stay and no-one has stood up and supported these proposals. Even Grayling did not attend the debate in Parliament.”
Harriet Wistrich, lawyer handed in a separate letter written personally from two women she represents who were sexually abused by guards at Yarl’s Wood detention centre.
“We are two women who were detained at different times at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre. Both of us were sexually assaulted by male staff employed by Yarl’s Wood. Our cases were featured in the Observer newspaper that exposed the scandal of sex abuse at Yarl’s Wood. We know of other women who have been similarly abused at Yarl’s Wood. We understand that the government wants to remove legal aid from people who don’t pass the residence test and this would apply to us. This would mean that we would never have had assistance from a lawyer to challenge the investigations conducted by Serco and UKBA, to seek redress for the harm done to us and to help bring these issues to public awareness. Without legal aid lawyers it is much less likely that the authorities would be held to account.”
‘Jennie’ (anonymised) a young person who represented Justforkidslaw.com today said, “I am currently destitute and struggling to support myself. Before I got legal aid I couldn’t see a way ahead. Now I have got a solicitor and she is helping me to contact social services so that I can put a roof over my head and access support. The government plans to take away the only lifeline that exists for people like me and it makes me very worried for those in my position in the future.”
Dinah Rose QC, former Liberal Democrat member said “The protection of the right of access to justice ought to be fundamental to a party which values civil liberties. It is put in jeopardy by the Government’s proposals to implement yet more cuts on legal aid. There is no point in participating in Government unless the leadership uses the power that it undoubtedly has to prevent serious damage being done to our legal system, and to the rights of the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society.”
James Welch, Liberty’s Legal Director, standing in front of Lib Dem HQ said: “Legal protections are meaningless if people can’t access effective legal representation. The current proposals put justice beyond reach for the most vulnerable and put the fairness of our criminal justice system in serious jeopardy. The Lib Dem membership have spoken out against these unjust attacks – it’s time for the leadership to listen.”
According to the Justice Alliance, knock on costs of the legal aid proposals could be up to £47 million. The impact of the legal aid cuts of April this year is already being felt by the vulnerable – victims of domestic violence and trafficking are being turned away by law firms who are at breaking point. The new proposals will make the situation far worse and severely undermine the ability of individuals including victims of torture, victims of police abuse and victims of sexual grooming to hold the state to account.
The Justice Alliance will continue to protest against the proposals and show the strength of feeling of charities and ordinary people against the proposals.