On Monday – many months after the Haldane Society first called for direct action against the cuts to legal aid – courtrooms were forced to close as criminal barristers and solicitors refused to attend hearings. Hundreds of practitioners gathered outside court buildings where they were supported by campaigners, grassroots organisations and trade unionists.
Among the many protests across England and Wales, the Justice Alliance had organised a meeting of around 300 people at Westminster Magistrates’ Court where the range of demonstrators indicated the broad damage that these cuts would cause. Alongside the Haldane banner there were representatives of NAPO, Southall Black Sisters, the Save Lewisham Hospital campaign and the PCS. Speakers included Gary McKinnon’s mother Janis Sharp and Patrick Maguire of the Maguire Seven. Matt Foot reminded the demonstration of the unity against the cuts, shared by all but a handful of Tory MPs.
Typically, the Ministry of Justice has responded to today’s strike by desperately lying to the public. Legal aid minister Shailesh Vara told the BBC that “the average criminal bar barrister working full-time is earning some £84,000” (which is wrong even on the LAA’s own figures) and HMCTS claimed that 73% of Crown Courts and 95% of magistrates’ courts sat. But barristers speaking to the press reported earnings of £16,000, or £3.00-4.00 per hour, and it was clear from those inside the courts that lists were collapsing across the country.
The Haldane Society welcomes today’s solidarity against the decimation of legal aid and the progress that has been made in bringing the truth about practitioners’ fees to the public’s attention. But with the government on the defensive and public opinion coming around, the campaign must now move away from fees and focus on the importance of legal aid as a pillar of the welfare state. The government is waging a war on the poor and, as Chris Grayling so often points out, legal aid is not an exception from its agenda.