Chris Grayling’s radical changes to legal aid could mean being represented by the same company that jails you
Imagine the following scenario: you’re on a protest with thousands of others about something you believe in strongly – against the government going to war, say, or against a massive rise in tuition fees, or because the cuts have left you and many you know in a precarious position. You don’t know what the exact route is, perhaps, but you’ve met with others at the starting point and are following the crowd. Someone along the route hands you a small card with details of specialist law firms that deal with protest cases. You think, “I don’t need that, I’m not getting involved in anything confrontational”, but put the card in your pocket anyhow.
A couple of hours later, after having kettled the crowd, the police charge in with horses. You find yourself near the front, scared and angry. You shout back and get shoved by a police officer. Another couple of hours later, as people in the kettle are released in single file, you find yourself arrested and taken to a police station. Asked about a lawyer, you remember the card in your pocket and call the number. Later, charged with a serious public order offence, you are advised, by your lawyer, based on the evidence, to plead “not guilty”. After a trial you are unanimously acquitted by the jury and free, if somewhat bewildered and angered by the experience, to get on with your life.
The crucial factor in the scenario above – which happens more often than you might think – is the role of the specialist lawyer’s advice. In the vast majority of the cases after the protests over tuition fees in 2010, those who pleaded not guilty were acquitted; if they had succumbed to the often overwhelming pressure to plead guilty, ramped up by a hostile media and the isolating experience of being accused of an offence, many dozens of people would have gone to prison.
While a good lawyer and the right advice is no guarantee of acquittal, it can make – and frequently has made – all the difference: the right to a lawyer of your choice, regardless of your income, race, gender or nationality, is, along with the jury system, the bedrock of justice in an unjust world.
Chris Grayling, the justice secretary, has presented a series of proposed “reforms” to the legal aid system driven by the desire to cut “£220m per year by 2018” that will radically undermine this right. Alongside restricting access to legal aid, these proposals will see defendants (“clients”) assigned legal representation (a “provider”) by the Legal Aid Agency. Legal firms will be forced to compete for cases in a bid-tendering process where large firms, often the same ones that provide security for prisons, are likely to dominate. In other words, a lawyer will be forced on you, legal aid will be even harder to get, and the chances of avoiding jail will get slimmer and slimmer.
The legal advice you receive needs only to be “satisfactory”, not good, according to the proposals. In the near future, you may be appointed a Serco lawyer, taken to jail in a Serco van and watched over by Serco guards – the vested interest in a guilty plea in this situation is worryingly evident. What the language of “clients” and “providers” obscures is that the burden is on the crown to prove beyond reasonable doubt that you are guilty of the charge it has brought against you. It is the state that charges you and the state that punishes you: the language of consumerism should not apply. It is a situation that requires the skills and reassurance of a specialist lawyer, not a production-line approach to “justice”.
The focus on protest here is only part of a larger picture, which includes the doubling of the prison population since 1993, and the disproportionate imprisonment of black and minority ethnic people and foreign nationals in a country in which human rights (including habeas corpus) are routinely suspended (see, for example, the case of Talha Ahsan, never charged but extradited to solitary confinement in the US). The legal profession is fighting back against these proposals – already there have been strikes in the north and in Wales, and there are campaigns such as Save UK Justice and Save Legal Aid – but this is a battle that concerns everybody. Cutting legal aid in the name of austerity could see you banged up in the name of that same project of cost-cutting: privatised, restricted justice is no justice at all, for anyone.