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Why We Should Fight For Legal Aid

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Cllr. Groucutt’s speech on legal aid cuts at full council on the 27th June.

Mr Mayor, we all assume that in our most desperate moments the British Criminal Justice System will be there for us.  We all assume that we will have the right to a fair trial, be considered  innocent until proven guilty, and that all are equal before the law.  These are phrases we hear time and again, phrases that I believed meant something because surely, Mr Mayor, justice for all is the cornerstone of a decent society?

But sadly Mr Mayor, if the Government’s ill-considered proposals go through these basic beliefs that we all hold true will be at risk.  There’ll be no access to free legal aid if people want to challenge an unlawful Government decision.  In Islington, we’ve seen local cases brought in relation to the bedroom tax and the benefit cap, crucial issues for our borough where we’ve been hit harder than almost anywhere else in the country.  Yet, if these changes go through, ordinary people in Islington will see that door to justice closed to them.

If you’re accused of a criminal offence, forget about choosing your own lawyer as that choice will be gone.  You might even end up with truckers firm ‘Eddie Stobart’ handling your case!  A stark survey by the Bar Council revealed that more than 70% of people think these government cuts are more likely to see people convicted of crimes they didn’t commit.  I fear we’ll see more miscarriages of justice with people being found guilty because of poorly prepared cases and innocent people being pressured into pleading guilty.  That isn’t just a personal tragedy for those people – it’s also a false economy because it only leads to higher costs in appeal cases and in locking people up who shouldn’t be in prison.

These changes will also see legal aid restricted to people who can prove they have been in the UK continuously for at least 12 months.  If you don’t have a passport, maybe because you can’t afford one, you risk being turned away when you desperately need help.  Imagine a vulnerable, homeless resident pleading for urgent, critical legal advice but without the documents that tick the right boxes.  Imagine a woman and her children with No Recourse to Public Funds suffering from domestic violence but unable to get out of an abusive relationship because she can’t get the help of legal aid.  And imagine a newly arrived family, at the mercy of unscrupulous private landlords and living in appalling conditions, with no power to do anything about it.

Mr Mayor, a fair society is one where everyone can access good quality legal advice, not just those with the most money like David Cameron and his ‘Cabinet of Millionaires’.  Legal aid is a vital pillar of the welfare state – and we can afford it.  The civil legal aid bill has already been cut by a massive £350m per annum.  The current system costs less than 0.5% of annual government spending.  That’s less than half of one per cent to defend our basic freedoms, tackle injustice and stand up for the rights of some of the most vulnerable people in our society. 

I believe that’s a price worth paying.

Mr Mayor, I am pleased that Cllr Greg Foxsmith will be seconding this motion and want to thank the work he, Cllr Catherine West, our two MPs Jeremy Corbyn MP and Emily Thornberry MP, the Islington Law Centre and local community groups have been doing to oppose these dangerous, ill-thought out plans.

I hope this Chamber can stand united tonight and send a message to this Government that basic justice is not for sale and must never be the preserve of only the rich and the privileged.

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