Pass the Placard

I am currently on a train on the way to London. Today I am joining a demo in the Old Palace Yard Westminster. I imagine that many people who will be there have not been on a demo since their student days. I cannot even claim that. Poll tax, apartheid, student loans – all were demonstrated against but the student VFTN did not go along and wave a placard. Today I am going to.

So what has motivated my middle aged bones to rattle off to London and spend too much time stood in the cold than is good for a man of my age? Well, something that is older than me. Something that turns 800 this year – the Magna Carta.

In fact it is not the Magna Carta itself that is causing me to join the massed throngs. If it was the Magna Carta itself then it would be a bit of a sham as the anniversary is not until June (which at least might stand a chance of being a little warmer). It is because this Government has the gall to use the ideals promoted by the Magna Carta to drum up business from abroad and cloak it all in a celebration of the venerable document.

For those who deal with football analogies, this is a bit like a Manchester United fan singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” in an effort to impress someone they fancy. It is just wrong. It cheapens everyone.

This is rank hypocrisy from the Government. They are promoting a justice system by values and achievements that they are set to destroy. Do not take my word for it when I suggest this. Read these words:

“In short, we see the Government’s proposals for competitive tendering for services or a 17.5% reduction as likely to result in (a) a marked deterioration in the provision of services in criminal cases leading inevitably to injustice in a significant number of cases, and as a result (b) harm to the reputation of this country’s justice system, which is likely to do consequential harm to other areas in which legal services are supplied, to the benefit of lawyers in this country and the Treasury.”

That comes from the Chancery Barr Association’s response to the Legal Aid consultation. The 17.5% cuts are still there. The damage is obvious to all those who can see. It is not Justice that is blind, but the Ministry of Justice.

And that was not a one off statement by the ChBA. Tim Fancourt QC addressed the One Bar, One Voice event in these terms:

“The legal services industry makes a huge contribution to the Exchequer. When it comes to invisible exports to international consumers, the Government is very approving: I quote:

“We recognise the importance of the UK’s legal services sector and the excellent reputation its legal services providers have at home and abroad. The sector contributed £20.9 bn to the UK economy in 2011, £4 bn of this derived from exports. It is important that we consolidate the UK’s international standing in what is becoming an increasingly competitive international field” (Chris Grayling, in a foreword to a MoJ /UKTI paper on UK Legal Services on the International Stage.)

And of course the Lord Chancellor is about to trumpet all these virtues to the visiting world at the Global Law Summit in 2015.

But is the Government not missing something here?

Surely it must recognise that it is taking an unacceptable risk with the reputation of the system in which it finds such virtue?”

So there we have the lawyers who benefit from the reputation for justice carved out from the Magna Carta onwards warning the Lord Chancellor of the damage he is doing. A sector that contributes £20.9 bn to the UK economy on the back of a reputation forged on the back of the work of Legal Aid lawyers at a cost of £2 bn per year. As the Americans would say – you do the maths.

Tim Fancourt QC addresses a plenary session at the Global Law Summit this afternoon, let’s hope he takes the opportunity to remind the Lord Chancellor of the views expressed above. In fact it is neither a hope nor an opportunity. It is an expectation and a duty.

An expectation and a duty that has been missed by some already. The Lord Chief Justice opened the Summit in the morning session. He addressed the assembled lawyers, politicians and business people thus:

“Access to justice

We are also all familiar now with the second principle ‐ that all should have fair and effective access to justice. That was not always the case. In parts of the world it is still not the case. And in other parts of the world it remains an aspiration that many are working to realise. One thing that I am sure we can all take from Magna Carta is that our commitment to this ideal is something, that no matter how familiar we are with it, is one that we must constantly reassert, just as Magna Carta was reissued and its demands for access to justice were reasserted over the centuries.

We will therefore examine how access to justice is best achieved – the way government can best provide for a court system that is open, transparent and effective in vindicating and, as importantly, enforcing rights and responsibilities, how a state guarantees a judiciary that will act independently of governmental or commercial pressure, how citizens can be provided with better access to courts through the proper use of modern technology, and the way in which a vibrant, diverse and independent legal profession can best make a cost effective contribution to the delivery of justice.”

Now I ask you this – how can anyone deal with this area, with “access to justice”, and not mention Legal Aid? That is not apolitical. It is appalling. If the judiciary are to remain away from politics, why address a nakedly political event? If the Lord Chief Justice will not challenge the restrictions to justice brought about by this Lord Chancellor what are the rest of us to do?

The answer is – haul ourselves down to London and protest. Now can someone hand me a placard please?

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