March together, strike together
The 26th March 2011 ‘March for an alternative’ demonstration was so big that many of us failed to find The Haldane Society’s banner. We still marched, and I was struck by how many lawyers turned out. It’s new to see lawyers defining themselves as public sector workers.
There’s also a new feel to the campaigns to save legal aid. Outside the right-wing world of The Daily Mail, the ‘fat cat lawyer’ jibes are beginning to disappear. Justice 4 All and The Law Society’s Sound Off for Justice are getting the message across that defending legal aid is not about defending lawyers, but about access to justice. The phrase ‘fourth pillar of the welfare state’ has resonance.
There were over 5,000 responses to the Green Paper ‘Proposals for the Reform of Legal Aid in England and Wales’ – we can presume the responses were overwhelmingly opposed to the proposals. Those who responded included Judges, MPs, the legal profession, advice agencies, voluntary sector groups and individuals. At the time of writing, the Government’s response is due to be published in early June and then the Parliamentary fight begins. We need to remain geared up to lobby and campaign against the proposed £350 million cuts.
Haldane’s Commission of Inquiry into Legal Aid is due to report on 14th June 2011. We hope that the report is well-timed. The Commission was organised jointly with our friends Young Legal Aid Lawyers. As set out in Connor Johnston’s YLAL column on page 11, it comprised three independent panelists: Dr Evan Harris, former Liberal Democrat MP, Diana Holland, Assistant General Secretary of Unite the Union, and Canon Nicholas Sagovsky, former canon at Westminster Abbey. They have heard from practitioners, campaigning organisations and, most importantly, people who have benefited from legal aid and have also studied the case for cutting legal aid.
At the Commission’s public session on 2nd February 2011, the personal testimony from individuals who had been helped with family, housing, education and debt advice, and with representation at an inquest, was profoundly moving. Beneficiaries of legal aid acknowledged the responsibilities involved in spending public money: Mrs Whitehouse got a cheer as she told us that the best thing about her winning her appeal (which meant that she could stay in her home) was that the landlord had had to pay her legal costs, so that the public was not out of pocket. They were also clear that their problems – which were often complex and required dealing with numerous statutory bodies – could not have been resolved without legal aid. Public bodies – local authorities, schools, the Home Office – all benefit from legal advice. Unlike recipients of legal aid, those public bodies don’t get blamed for briefing expensive lawyers or creating litigation. Cutting legal aid makes the playing field even more unequal.
Other public sector workers – teachers, civil servants and (most importantly for us) Court staff – are being balloted for strike action on 30th June 2011 in defence of public sector pensions as I write. We hope that Haldane members will be able to support the strike and not cross picket lines. It’s tricky to balance our duties to our clients with our solidarity with Court staff and other public sector workers, but it’s one that health professionals, teachers and other public servants have to make all the time.
Away from the main demonstration on 26th March, 200 demonstrators peaceably occupied Fortnum and Mason and other retailers accused of tax dodging. The police seemed all sweetness and light: telling them they just had to wait until it was safe to leave. As the protesters left, they were surrounded, contained and arrested. Many of them spent over 24 hours in custody. The Court cases are on-going but their treatment highlights the need for committed legal observers.
The Haldane Society provides legal observers for demonstrations, at the request of the organisers. We are there to monitor police behaviour and ensure police accountability. We’re not there to police the demonstrators: they are already being policed. We’re there to ensure that, where lawful rights of legitimate protesters are infringed, there is a record and the police are held accountable. Anyone who is interested in volunteering, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Liz Davies, chair of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers