Hackney Community Law Centre was delighted to host a joint debate with the Justice Gap team on Thursday 12th July 2012 in the House of Commons entitled ‘Justice in the Community: do we get it?‘. The debate brought together a high profile panel from the legal, community and political arenas and was chaired by Jon Robins (pictured above centre), HCLC Patron and editor of the Justice Gap. We are grateful to George Chalkias, Parliamentary Assistant to Diane Abbott MP, for assisting us with the arrangements.
Chair Jon Robins (JR)(pictured above centre) opened the debate with the quote made by Ken Clarke, the current Secretary of State for Justice, as he introduced his government’s legal aid reforms: “I genuinely believe “access to justice” is the hallmark of a civilised society“. Jon explained that it was with those words that the The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act promised to slash £350m from a £2.1bn budget (the cuts starting in April 2013 ) which would remove large swathes of social welfare law – housing, welfare benefits, employment and immigration – and family advice.
In the context of the LASPO cuts, the debate would focus on issues such as:
- What do we mean by ‘access to justice’?
- Is the law for the rich?
- What future is there for the legal advice sector and their largely poor and vulnerable clients?
- Are local communities like Hackney getting the justice they deserve?
Diane Abbott (DA), HCLC Patron and Member of Parliament for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, was the first member of the panel to speak. For Diane, the Law Centre Movement has been under attack. She had tried to lobby Jack Straw, the former Labour Secretary of State for Justice, on the issue. Labour said they would not take a political line. Diane first came into contact with law centres in 1980s. They were the interface between Ethnic Minorities and the State. The role of law centres was “catalystic”. Law Centres speak up for people who don’t have a voice. The people who cannot get legal aid as a result of this Act would end up at MPs’ surgeries….
Roger Smith (RS), the Director of Justice, said he had become involved in the law centre movement in 1973 in Camden. Law Centres were seen as very radical in those days.
Lord Willy Bach (WB), the former shadow justice secretary and the peer who led Labour’s opposition to the The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act 2012 said that it was “wicked” to “destroy social welfare law“. It was an attack on what was already a small part of legal aid. This was the “law of everyday life”, the kind of law that helps people who would not get any help at all. The government would not save any money at all. If early advice is not given people’s lives can go haywire. Lord Bach thought the LASPO Bill was an “absolute scandal“. People should still feel angry and determined about the Act.
Matthew Ryder QC (MR) of Matrix Chambers believed that Law Centres were creative ways of providing services. Law Centres enabled people to be trained. Matthew himself was a child of the welfare state. He had attended a state primary school, then a comprehensive secondary school, then the University of Cambridge. He then went to work in a legal firm. For Matthew, legal aid represents the “identity of modern Britain along with the National Health Service (NHS), public housing and public education“. The LASPO Act was “contrary to who we are as a people“. For Matthew, two things needed to be done. The first was for lawyers to find creative ways to work and the second was to seek clear indications from Her Majesty’s Opposition on what they would do if they were to regain power at the next general election in 2015.
DA: Many lawyers are feeding off vulnerable people and that’s why I will always support the work of Hackney Community Law Centre for providing a quality service.
RS: The case made against legal aid is that it swallows money. We need to ensure that our rhetoric is right. In the 1970s there were campaigns. We have to prove that things hurt people as well as lawyers.
MR: There needs to be a clear logic about who we are as a people, like the NHS. There has to be a general shift in recognition as opposed to a ‘numbers’ game’.
WB: This Act demans our country. The dichotomy between the rich Russions and legal aid being taken away from people.
MR: Legal aid is about public-private partnerships. Innovative, flexible models – like law centres – came through legal aid. Now you have the worst of all worlds.
JR to MR: Are you proposing a national legal aid system?
RS: The need is to persuade the Labour party. Law Centres have the capacity to document who is losing out. They can produce the empirical evidence of who is being hurt. Money should be squeezed from crime to pay for ‘poverty law’.
MR TO RS: I question your model. I went to New York in the mid 90s. I came back because of legal aid. I am still a fan of the model that we (currently) have.
WB: Legal aid lawyers have never been rich lawyers.
MR: Under Labour, we had huge cuts to immigration law..
Jake Ferguson (JF), Chief Executive of the Hackney Council of Voluntary Services (HCVS) (pictured above second from left) joined the debate. Jake said that HCVS was struggling to watch small community groups suffering. A lot of people would not even know about the (existence of) the law centres.
JR: Is the advice sector willing to innovate?
JF: There is a notion that if you’re small and local you are not good at what you do. Big doesn’t always work. I am concerned about the austerity measures. There doesn’t seem to be a standard level of protection for law centres. That seems bizarre to me.
WB: Some things are worse now than even under Thatcher.
CONTRIBUTIONS FROM THE FLOOR
Paul Heron, solicitor at Hackney Community Law Centre (pictured above), made a contribution from the floor. For Paul, there is a wealth deficit in the UK. It’s not a trickle-down, it’s a cascade-up. You need to be even richer than before to make it onto the Sunday Times Rich list. In the UK we have a democratic deficit where people will not be able to enforce their rights. Re “innovation“, in the 1970s councils were prepared to fund things, now they won’t. Innovation is not as easy as people think.
MR: We need to win the ideological argument at a higher level.
JF: Could there be taxes levied on some of the big law firms?
JR: There is a poll in the Guardian today asking if solicitors should pay £25 towards helping fund Law Centres and the vote result is currently ‘Yes’.
Roger Gough, a member of the audience: There are so many lawyers in Parliament you would think they would be batting for you!
RS: We need a strategy. We have to document who is hurting. HCLC can do that.
John Wiggins from the Mary Ward Legal Centre: The media is not playing attention.
JF: Has the soul gone out of this country? I do not think (commissioning) lots of case studies is going to change anything. There has to be a growth of “people power” rather than a numbers’ game.
WB: I am very critical of the Times. There was hardly anything reported by the BBC either.
Miranda Grell, Hackney Community Law Centre to MR: It is so expensive to study (law) now. The Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) has been taken away, tuition fees brought in. The current generation of legal aid lawyers started in the 1970s. They are tired now. They want to retire. As a practising barrister how do you suggest we encourage the new generation coming through to go into the legal aid field?
MR: We have to frame how the public sees legal services. How do we in private practice help those in public practice? We (in private practice) need to rethink our relationship with law firms. I have a fundamental belief in people’s resilience to help the poor. You have to find (other) ways. The Government has to rethink how they’re funding this. They need to wake up to what is happening.
David Chadwick, University of Kent: It’s too expensive to study these days. I had a full grant, now there are £9000 a year tuition fees.
Zena Soormally, Hammersmith & Fulham Law Centre: There are still people who want to do this kind of work. I could be earning more elsewhere but I want to do this kind of work.
RS: I have a problem with the concept of ‘access to justice’. It’s about justice. The political position has to be about fairness and not actually needing a lawyer.
Audience member: We should be talking about INJUSTICE. We’re not talking about injustice.
MR: Our legal system may have lots of flaws but it is also the envy of the world. We are taking our legal system for granted.
JF: I’m interested in how people empower themselves. There are 28,000 stop and searches in Hackney every year. Only 1 in 10 of those ever lead to an arrest. Should we be doing more to empower individuals to help themselves?
Gloria Morrison, Hackney Unites: Too many young people are being prosecuted under ‘joint enterprise’. These are malicious prosecutions.
Aaron, a student member of the audience: Justice needs to be more understandable to members of the public.
Heather Kennedy, Hackney Unites: People should start projects like ours, which is a forum for private tenanats to empower them about their rights.
MR: We must use some of our legal energy to assist those in need. I volunteered with the Free Representation Unit (FRU) and volunteered at Brent Law Centre.
*Thank you so much again to all of our speakers and audience for a very lively, thought provoking and stimulating debate, which will hopefully now form the basis of practical action Friends of Hackney Community Law Centre can take forward.
To find out about future HCLC debates and other events of interest click HERE*.