Yesterday, as I sat in a planning meeting for the Sound off for Justice campaign, I became quite depressed that, for all its boldness and ingenuity in fighting legal aid cuts, the Law Society was probably going to fail. More depressing still, while a major reason is undoubtedly an intransigent government hell bent on cutting at all costs, part of this failure will be because it is being led by the Law Society.
I haven’t gone native, but I’ll put my hands up and say I’ve been very impressed with Sound off for Justice, and the Law Society now feels a million miles from the organisation I’ve spent years berating for its protectionism and failure to embrace change. The problem is that the general public probably don’t believe that the Society is doing it ‘because it is the right thing to do’ and see Sound off for Justice as driven by self interest.
This bothers me. Why don’t people see that access to justice is as important as access to healthcare or education? Although the Legal Aid and Legal Advice Act of 1949 didn’t set up a national legal service, it did recognise that equality of access and the right to representation before the law was fundamental to a just society. I guess many think legal aid is something for ‘benefit scroungers’ and other ne’er do wells. that if they don’t break the law and keep their heads down they’ll be ok.
But it doesn’t take much to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and suddenly find you need legal assistance. The government has said it has no intention of removing the right to police station advice, but has, worryingly, left the provision in the justice bill.
And it doesn’t take much to become a victim of clinical negligence – it happens to one in ten people who undergo treatment in hospital. You won’t get legal aid, so without a stash of cash you won’t get justice.
It also doesn’t take much, if you are one of the thousands who’ve lost their job, to find yourself at the wrong end of a repossession order. You will get legal aid if you are about to be made homeless, but then it’s probably too late.
Then there’s the ‘legal aid fat cats’, those criminal legal aid barristers raking it in. One of them is David Cameron’s brother, who was paid over £1.13m in legal aid fees over the last decade. Another is the brother of Justice minister Crispin Blunt, who took an almost unbelievable £5.86m over the same period. This diverts the public’s attention from those at the sharp end of civil legal aid who probably earn less than me (and, arguably, I’m not doing anything particularly useful).
Sound off for Justice rightly targeted decision-makers rather than the mass general public. But with ministers failing to respond, maybe now it’s time to garner more public support. The 26,000 signed up to the campaign is a start, but far more are needed if Tory MPs (and, let’s face it, it is Tory MPs) are going to start worrying that cutting legal aid is a vote loser.
Despite being a campaign genius (my own words) I don’t know how they’ll do this. Never mind ‘giving’ fatigue, I fear we are entering a period of ‘campaign’ fatigue, or frankly just general fatigue at trying to keep all the plates spinning, as jobs are lost, services slashed and prices rise. If people are targeting their efforts, they are probably not going to choose a campaign run by lawyers for the benefit of other lawyers, even if it’s not primarily lawyers who will suffer. I understand this. But it will be the most vulnerable in society who lose out, and don’t forget, that could be you.