On any ordinary Friday morning Southwark Crown Court alone can hear 20 or more cases. These range from burglary and fraud to driving without insurance.
Most of the defendants dragged before this court and hundreds of others around Britain are working class people, unfamiliar with the legal system and without the money to hire a lawyer.
They face a justice system built to enforce ruling class interests.
Judges in strange wigs and privately educated experts with stranger jargon argue over the finer points of laws written to preserve capitalism.
Every legal victory has had to be bitterly fought for, from the exposure of great miscarriages of justice to the simple rights of ordinary defendants.
The latest Tory attacks on legal aid will make the battlefield even more uneven.
Legal aid gives people who couldn’t otherwise afford it access to choose the best legal advice and representation appropriate to their case.
Some £350 million was slashed from legal aid in civil cases on 1 April this year. That’s funding that could help people take on their landlords, fight for the benefits they are entitled to or navigate the nightmare maze of immigration law.
Just eight days later the government announced another £220-300 million of cuts, which will slash legal aid in criminal cases too.
So instead of getting to choose their own representation, ordinary people who find themselves in a police station could be handed over to whichever firm made the cheapest bid.
They could be lumped with low-cost lawyers from firms such as Eddie Stobart, Tesco or G4S looking to make an easy buck.
Legal aid has made all the difference to people like Janet Alder, who has spent years campaigning for justice after her brother Christopher died in police custody in 1998.
“During the inquest alone into Christopher’s death, the police had five barristers and QCs to represent them,” Janet told Socialist Worker. “It was the same during the trial.
“The state has the money to get the best representation. This should be the same for the public.
“Working people are going to be found guilty before they even stand trial. There will be no justice.”
Exposing the crimes of the state can’t be done on the cheap. It takes committed lawyers on the side of their clients.
“We were very fortunate that we had Leslie Thomas to represent us, who represents a lot of other police conduct cases, such as Azelle Rodney and Smiley Culture,” said Janet.
“Recently I’ve had a letter from the Independent Police Complaints Commission which says they are investigating the Humberside Police because myself and Leslie Thomas were being unlawfully surveyed during Christopher’s Inquest in 2000. That shows you what they think of people who are challenging them.
“There’s something drastically going wrong.”
Judicial review—the means by which public bodies such as the police, prisons, councils or the government can be held to account—is also under threat.
David Cameron has said that most judicial review cases are “completely pointless”. But without them a prisoner who alleges abuse by guards won’t get legal aid funding to take on the prison.
Instead they’ll have to rely on the prison to represent them against itself.
Despite the rhetoric of austerity, few of these changes are likely to save much money. They could even cost more if poor representation leads to a backlog in the courts.
But they will make it much harder for people to defend themselves against the government’s attacks.
Currently 40 percent of people who appeal against decisions to deny them benefits are successful. But changes to legal aid mean some of the poorest people will lose the ability to do that.
So will women who are prosecuting domestic violence cases.
The government is also proposing residency tests to ensure a person only qualifies for legal aid if they’ve been a resident of Britain for at least a year at some point in their life.
No estimate exists for how much this would save—but it won’t be much. This is a purely nasty move that’s more about scapegoating than saving money. It means that if a young woman has been trafficked into Britain and forced into prostitution, she will not be eligible for legal aid.
There is a fightback under way. Legal workers have organised coordinated training days as a form of industrial action.
And the Justice Alliance was recently set up, consisting of 25 organisations, including trade unions and leading legal bodies, committed to resisting the Tory attacks on free legal aid for all.
It has organised several protests, including a national day of action on Tuesday of this week.
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