The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid held its first meeting of the new Parliament yesterday (3 February), with a high-level panel including a former Lord Chancellor and luminaries from the Bar Council and the Law Society.
But the speech that reduced the packed room to pin-drop silence came from one of the youngest people in it, Faith Rowan, representing Young Legal Aid Lawyers.
Although, as she told us, she no longer is in that role, having finished on January 10, saying that the life, its demands and the extremely low level of payment (another contributor noted that there had not been an increase in fees for two decades, but in fact a cut) had led her to conclude that it was simply unsustainable to stay. “I could not see myself in this role in the years to come,” she said.
But, as I and many other speakers, including that former Lord Chancellor Lord Faulkner, said, this meeting about the gross underfunding of legal aid was not about lawyers, but the people who needed their services.
As Ms Rowan had told us, this was the reason why she’d gone into criminal law, to help “the clients facing complex matters while having so many vulnerabilities, housing issues, the works”.
We heard harrowing tales about the impact of a lack of representation in family law cases, about confused defendants in criminal cases struggling and failing to make sense of what was happening to them.
Centuries ago, the wonderful resource that is the Old Bailey Online shows us that defendants could be sentenced in minutes as they had not an idea of what was even happening before them. We’re sometimes in little better circumstances now, despite the best efforts of judges to explain.
As we heard from Caroline Goodwin, Chair of the Criminal Bar Association, that’s consuming volumes of court time, time that is already inadequate to the demands placed upon it, with vulnerable alleged victims of crimes, as well as defendants, facing long, traumatic postponements of their cases.
Fiona Rutherford, Director of Access to Justice Policy speaking for the Ministry of Justice, made comments of particular interest to me, in saying that the government wants to make sure that families are properly supported at inquests, with increased participation in the process.
Seven-year-old Zane’s parents were grossly outgunned by high-power legal representatives for government bodies at his inquest, having been denied legal aid.
As I told the meeting, this was crucial not only to the rights of young Zane and his parents to justice, but also to the broader issue of public safety in the vicinity of historic landfill sites, that has been dangerously brushed under the carpet.
So many cases where legal aid is crucial cover issues broader than just the individual.
Lib Dem MP Daisy Cooper noted that in the early days of legal aid it was seen as a parallel to the NHS. We need to get back to that, she said.
For legal aid is essential to democracy.
What use, after all, is it winning legal protections – particularly against the awesome power of the government – if there is no means to exercise them?
I referred to the great work being done by Extinction Rebellion, by anti-fracking campaigners, by Client Earth, in different ways standing up for all of us and our rights, often substantially ‘outgunned’ in court, but still fighting the good fight and often winning by the force of their argument.
But all too often, cases can’t even be brought to court and vulnerable defendants are left without the support that would ensure their cases are properly heard.
Justice unfunded is justice denied.
And if many young lawyers like Ms Rowan leave the profession in despair, or never enter it, then restoring that justice is going to be extremely difficult.