I SEE the old legal aid chestnut was gamed this week.
The use of the chestnut is to make people unsympathetic to the spending of public money on lawyers or categories of applicants for legal aid. The argument about costs usually begins with a splash figure of X number of millions of pounds, and then ties a chunk of that sum to one law firm or another, or one case or another. The argument casts defence lawyers or criminal justice lawyers, and definitely human rights lawyers, as money-grabbers, and casts defendants or judicial review applicants, and definitely bereaved families, as vexatious and altogether bad craic.
That game sometimes works because it only tells one story and that story is only told through one lens. The resulting manipulated lack of sympathy gives cover to reducing or removing legal aid from categories of individuals who face the justice system, always to the benefit of the status quo.
Of course, the people who are making those arguments are also the people completely happy to pay the state’s army of barristers, advisers, lawyers and researchers. Rarely pointed out are payments for not only the Public Prosecution Service (which is pretty poorly-funded), but also the handsomely salaried legal teams and the huge firms of favour who defend the state from allegations of wrongdoing. Millions upon millions come from the very same purse which pays out legal aid to the ordinary citizen – the purse of all of our taxes. But that is a too inconvenient truth when the far right want to scream about “millionaire lawyers” or “vexatious” and “pernicious” families. But truth it is.
An attack on the legal aid system, whether it is by propaganda or by under-funding, is a backdoor attack on all of our rights. Legal aid, if working properly, should defend the abandoned, the harmed and the innocent. It should be the defending line between dictatorship and democracy, between an arrogant state and the defenceless individual. It is our mudguard against misrule. This Conservative Party know this, which is why they attack it so vehemently.
This week the incessantly tedious Secretary of State Brandon Lewis issued a statement about the cost of legacy legal aid, putting it at £500 million, a conveniently round figure. With no detail or breakdown, it was of course immediately challenged as completely wrong by lawyers and Relatives for Justice. And so, in perhaps a metaphor for Mr Lewis himself, by week’s end, rather than being a torpedo in favour of the British government’s losing argument for introducing its amnesty legislation, it became a damp squib.
They won’t care, though. They will continually use fictitious figures as a justification to themselves and others for denying bereaved families their rights to truth and justice. Tories are content with portraying legal aid as a racket, rather than the critical arm of the defence of the criminal justice system that it is.
When we read connected headlines telling us that this government will ignore court rulings and judicial reviews we know where we are. Tied to a system that prefers lawlessness and self-interest to the rule of law and democratic governance. Our devolved government must endeavour to protect our citizens, and our conflict bereaved, from this far right government’s worst excesses. But many will prefer national independence to this ignominy.