Category Archives: Other campaign actions

“If I hadn’t had legal aid I would be dead now”

This morning we went to meet Lord McNally, Minister of State for Justice, with two women who have received legal aid. We wanted the Minister to hear from people who have received legal aid directly what it means to them. As we were waiting to enter the Ministry of Justice we spotted Chris Grayling, so we hand delivered the clients’ letters to him too.

Letter to Mr Grayling
Delivering Laila and Grace’s letters to Grayling

Laila’s story – fighting to be safe from persecution

Laila's letter to the Ministers
Laila’s letter to the Ministers

“I came to this country from Somalia to seek protection. When I made my asylum claim I was put in detention and my case was processed in the Fast Track system. Everything happened so quickly: after just two weeks my case had been refused. The Home Office did not even allow me time to get any evidence to support my case. I did not speak any English then and I did not really understand what was happening. Later I found a legal aid lawyer who helped me to make a fresh asylum claim. My lawyer helped me to get a medical report which was evidence of the scars and the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that I have because of the rape and torture I suffered in Somalia. At first the Home Office refused to look at my new evidence and I had to start a judicial review case against them. Eventually the Home Office accepted that I had made a valid fresh asylum claim, and eventually I was recognised as a Refugee. Without legal aid I think I would be dead because I would have been sent back to Somalia.”

Grace’s story – protection from domestic violence

“I first came to this country with my ex husband. He is a very violent man. He abused and beat me and our children terribly in my country and in the United Kingdom. While I was seeking asylum in this country I had to apply for a non-molestation order against him. Everyday I lived in fear of him. My heart was pounding in my hand. I went to the police but they could not protect me. My legal aid lawyer advised me I could apply for a non molestation order from the court. We made the application and the Judge granted the order.

If it hadn’t been for the help I got through legal aid I would have committed suicide.  I was so unwell and scared then that I did not know my left from my right. I was so in fear of the violence of this man that I was thinking of killing myself. Legal aid saved mine and my childrens’ life”.

What the legal aid changes would mean for Laila and Grace

The government’s proposals to introduce a residence test for civil legal aid would mean that an asylum seeker like Laila whose case had initially been refused would not be able to receive legal aid to make a second (‘fresh’) asylum claim. We believe that this will mean that thousands of people will be at risk of being returned to countries where they risk being raped, tortured or killed.

The government’s proposals also mean that someone who has been recognised as a Refugee will not be able to receive legal aid until 12 months after they were granted status. This means that if Grace had had to apply for a non molestation order in the first year after she was recognised as a Refugee – rather than while her asyum claim was ongoing – she would not be able to get any legal aid.

The right to asylum and the need for legal aid

The government consultation recognises that asylum seekers are among the most vulnerable people in society, and says that is why legal aid will still be available for people seeking asylum for the first time. But we can see no justification for cutting legal aid from people making fresh asylum applications. Often such applications are made after there have been changes in the conditions in the asylum seeker’s home country, or after there has been a change in law, or when someone gets new evidence which supports their case. In 2010 for example, the House of Lords decided that it was wrong to expect someone seeking asylum on the grounds of their sexuality to have to go back to their country and simply be ‘discrete’. This landmark judgement meant that many people made successful fresh asylum claims.

We also don’t see how the government’s decision to exclude Refugees from receiving legal aid until they have had status for at least 12 months can be justified. The government says that legal aid should only be available for people who have a ‘strong connection’ to the UK, which it has defined as 12 months lawful residence. But if an exception is made for people seeking asylum, why should the clock be set back to day one when an asylum seeker is actually recognized as a Refugee?

Lord McNally’s reaction to Grace and Laila’s stories

At our meeting today, Lord McNally said it had been “extremely helpful” to hear Laila and Grace’s personal testimony. He accepted that problems such as needing a non molestation order against a violent ex partner require urgent solutions, and that a Refugee in this situation simply cannot wait for 12 months until they would meet the residence test. He stressed that both areas are still under discussion and that he wants to make savings to the legal aid budget without impacting on the most vulnerable. We found his response encouraging, and we hope it signals a change in the government’s thinking  on legal aid changes in relation to the residence test and its application to asylum seekers.

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Legal Aid Day on 30th July 2013: a celebration and a protest

The birth of Legal aid

The 30th July 2013 marks the anniversary of the day the Legal Advice and Assistance Act 1949 came into force, the Act of Parliament that marked the beginning of the provision of legal aid in England and Wales. It is the anniversary of the day that the provision of free legal advice and representation to people who cannot afford to pay for a private lawyer and whose cases have merit became a cornerstone of the welfare state. Where previous schemes had operated on a charitable basis only, the Rushcliffe Committee report whose advice the Atlee government followed, recommended that free access to justice for people with a low income should be funded by the state. The report stated: “Many people of moderate means […] may suddenly find themselves in urgent need of help for this special purpose. In our view, people in this position should be able to get the help they need…”.

In fact the principles and values that inspire the provision of legal aid in order to ensure equality before the law can be traced back much further to the Magna Carta of 1215, which stated “we will not deny or defer to any man either justice or right”.

A party and a protest

The Justice Alliance,  an umbrella group of organisations opposed to the Coalition government’s plans to ‘transform’ legal aid has called for 30th July to be a day of action across England and Wales aimed at celebrating legal aid and protesting against the  government’s  plans. In London, an event is being planned from 4.30pm, outside the Old Bailey. Please save the date and clear your diaries to make this the biggest, loudest and most publicised show of opposition to government’s plans that will effectively dismantle legal aid as a pillar of the welfare state, by preventing the most vulnerable people in our society from being able to enforce their rights, destroying the quality of the criminal defence, and making public bodies less accountable for their actions!

The Justice Alliance

This newly formed umbrella group brings together legal organisations, charities, community groups, grass roots and other campaigning groups, trade unions and individuals who oppose the government’s plans to change legal aid. So far some 12 partners have joined the movement, including Liberty, Amnesty International, the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association (LCCSA), the Howards League for Penal Reform, Defend the Right to Protest. Many more are expected to join over the coming weeks and months as the campaign against the legal aid changes gathers momentum and coordination.

Legal Aid Question Time

This evening we attended the Legal Aid Question Time organised by the Bar Council, and hosted by Joshua Rozenberg. On the panel were Andy Slaughter MP, Shadow Justice Minister; Maura McGowan, Chair the Bar Council; Lord McNally, Minister of State for Justice; and Steve Hynes, Director of the Legal Action Group. Here are our highlights from the debate.

A hysterical response?

We had the pleasure of asking the opening question. Did the panel agree with Lord McNally’s characterisation of the legal profession’s response to the consultation as ‘hysterical’? The panel did not agree. Lord McNally said that these changes had not been sprung on the legal profession, that there is ample room for the profession to adjust; and that even after these changes England and Wales will still have the most generous legal aid scheme in the world. He said he did not regret using the word ‘hysterical’. He did acknowledge however that the accusation that the proposals will reduce quality is a valid one, and one “we should look at”. He also appeared to accept that the government is aware  that it is likely to face legal challenges in relation to its proposals.

Cost saving vs impact on society

A recurrent theme of Lord McNally’s responses was that these changes are motivated by cuts to the budget of the Ministry of Justice. He said he has seen a 23% cut in his budget, that “we have all taken hard hits”, and that it is only right that the legal profession must also bear the pain. Andy Slaughter said that if Labour were in power they would also reduce the legal aid budget, but that the issue is how. He listed some of the problems with these proposals as being that they remove competition, they will force the closure of three quarters of criminal defence firms, they will provide a financial incentive to legal representatives for their clients to plead guilty. He also condemned the proposals as an attack on people who do not otherwise have power, that will deprive them of the ability to seek redress in the courts.

Interestingly, Lord McNally appeared to accept that the changes will impact on the most vulnerable. He said “if you manage part of the tax payers’s money and you cut that budget, you are going to hit the poorest and most deprived in society.” Later he mentioned that there is also the overriding principle of access to justice, but that that shouldn’t prevent the profession from organising itself to be as efficient as possible for the tax payer.

Change without wrecking the system

Both Maura McGowan and Steve Hynes expressed their commitment to engaging with the government’s proposals in a constructive manner. Maura McGowan said that changes should be made where required, but she emphasised that there is a “substantial risk that criminal justice will be wrecked” if these proposals are implemented. Steve Hynes said that there are savings to be made, but warned that there would be constitutional implications if the proposals to limit the availability of legal aid for judicial review and prison law were implemented. He suggested we would look to Scotland where savings have been achieved in a different way.

Happy reading!

One hour was not enough to satisfy the audience’s desire to put questions to the panel. Fortunately, Lord McNally said more than once that “it is a consultation and we will listen to responses”. The government has said it will respond to the consultation in the autumn.  They are considering 16,000 responses. Assuming they do so in 3 months,  the Ministry will have to consider over 260 responses each working day.

Related posts

Previously posted here: Lord McNally vs the “hysterical” legal profession

Legal Aid Question Time: highlights by Jon Mack

A letter to Lord McNally from up North

An Hysterical Question Time by a barrister at Argent Chambers

Legal Aid Question Time – 18 June 2013 by Gemma Blythe

Head of Legal’s comments “McNally: If you live in a bubble, you’re not going to persuade people”

Truthaholics’s writeup UK legal aid cuts: Natural justice faces a savage loss of innocence!

Let’s get everyone on board!

After the success of the demonstration outside the Ministry of Justice last week, we are now launching into a mass operation of Flyer Distribution, to try to help raise awareness amongst the general public about the government’s proposals to “transform” legal aid and the impact these changes will have on people who have to rely on legal aid to enforce their rights, because they cannot afford to pay a lawyer privately.

Mass support

Hopefully handing out flyers will help raise awareness among people who have not heard about the changes, encourage them to sign the e petition, and spread the word further. We  want to show Mr Grayling that the country is against his proposals!

Please feel free to download the flyer and hand it out to friends, colleagues, leave some in your favourite cafe, local library, GP waiting room, in the commuter paper you leave on a train and anywhere else you can think of!

Flyer for general public