At Friday’s ‘Grayling Day’ demonstration in London, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association Nigel Lithman QC told the audience that ‘an indispensable part of our democracy is the criminal justice system. It’s taken centuries to build; it is taking this government a blink of an eye to demolish.’
It’s difficult, he said, ‘to imagine how any more damage can be done to this system; and the whole system is in revolt as to what is happening. To destroy one part of the legal system may be regarded as a misfortune; to destroy all of them looks like carelessness.’
He attacked the Ministry of Justice, which he said was ‘inept’, ‘not fit for purpose’ and ‘an embarrassment’. In contrast he said the criminal bar was ‘the most restrained’ profession in Britain. ‘For us to take to the streets and close the courts – all cannot be well.’
He also hinted at the justification for further action: ‘We are being shown no good will. So we will respond – and we too will show no good will.’
The speech that went down best on the day came from Paddy Hill, one of the Birmingham Six, who spent 16 years in prison having been wrongly convicted of murder in 1975. It was a broad attack on the political establishment, a warning about miscarriages of justice and a call for wider action against cuts.
Instead of cutting legal aid, he said, ‘let’s get rid of that bunch of arseholes that’s sitting over there … if we do, we’ll have plenty of money for legal aid.’
He warned about the effect of the cuts on those like him: ‘If I was in prison today, I would never get legal aid – I would rot in prison, even though they knew I was innocent.’ Later, Hill said that all the cuts would do is ‘give the Crown Prosecution Service and the police a free hand in court to do what they want’.
It wasn’t the public that caused the economic crisis, he said, calling for much broader action: ‘It was them in there, their friends in big business, and the bankers. Let’s get rid of the lot of them … You want to come out on strike for good, until we get rid of that lot and get things changed, because until then, nothing’s going to change in this country.’
While this was crowd-rousing stuff, a crucial issue in defining legal aid policy will be the attitude of the Labour front bench. On this Shadow Lord Chancellor Sadiq Khan MP had a slightly rougher ride than he might have hoped for when speaking. Although his speech was broadly well received, for the first time at one of these rallies I heard him heckled by not one, but at least three protestors.
Would he, his introduction asked, give an unequivocal commitment to overturn any legal aid cuts? That, of course, would be impossible for any Labour spokesman to do; and unsurprisingly, no answer came. He began with an attack on his ministerial opposite number. ‘When you have blind ambition plus wilful ignorance, you have Chris Grayling,’ he said to cheers, and of all Lord Chancellors Grayling was, he said, ‘the most legally illiterate in a thousand years’. Here, Khan said ‘is a man who thinks the Magna Carta is a bottle of champagne’.
A good line which I hadn’t heard before. He laid into the entire government, too, saying ‘it’s been a mission of David Cameron and Nick Clegg, over the last four years, to deny ordinary people access to justice’ and that the government had shown a ‘pattern of behaviour’, adding: ‘They’re changing the way we do judicial review, they’ve changed “no win, no fee”, they’re attacking our human rights law, and they’re attacking legal aid.’
But as he began to address the financial scale of the cuts some of the audience seemed to lose sympathy with him, and began to attack Labour’s own record. You could hear a woman protester shouting: ‘Your government did the same!’
I’m pretty sure I heard two women on either side of me making comments about Labour – and you could hear at least one male voice, too, shouting: ‘What about you?’ At the end, there was some booing.
‘I am with you, and we will defeat them,’ said Khan. But I wonder to what extent the audience were really with him.
It’s understandable that Labour spokesmen should want to attack the government over legal aid while making as few specific spending pledges as they can. Ed Balls’ fiscal plans leave them little room to restore the cuts this government makes. But I sensed that quite a few of today’s audience wondered what Khan’s attacks on Grayling added up to in the end.
For more coverage of the day see Last chance saloon – criminal Bar stage major protest against final legal aid reform package