Labour Conference: Please sir, will you save Legal Aid?

The reason I’m on the fence between Labour and the Greens at the moment can largely be summed up in one word: justice. Labour left me feeling pretty bitter about it during its 13 years in office. The Labour government was hardly filled with paragons of virtue in this arena and its centre leaning (and beyond) policies were there from day one. You might not have seen me share my Criminology lecturer’s anecdote, which he told us shortly after the 1997 election. He saw Jack Straw at a function and Straw said ‘the trouble with “you lefties” is’, without irony. My lecturer was one of the most respected criminologists in the world but he was written off as a lefty by the newly minted Labour Home Secretary. If their criminal justice policies were bad, things were to get worse once they got onto anti-terror legislation. The various Home Secretaries and Lord Chancellors/Justice Ministers who had held office under New Labour have been swept away since then but I’m still left wondering how far Labour’s really moved from the centre ground over the past three years. Labour isn’t under pressure to talk about some of the issues which worry me at the moment though so Yvette Cooper was able to focus primarily on three areas which have been in the limelight and could be expected to resonate with the public in her speech :-
– police numbers;
– it’s just one fuck up after another on Theresa May’s watch; and
– immigration.
As with Social Security, there were good points in Cooper’s speech (eg. improving sex education in schools, which is important for numerous reasons). I was also far more thrilled than anyone ought to be at her mentioning the connection between rising shoplifting and rising poverty. Even though many issues weren’t mentioned at all in Cooper’s speech, I had the gut feeling reading it that criminal policy remains an area where playing on people’s fears and prejudices remains the easiest course for politicians seeking office though. The tone of her speech felt familiar and that sentiment came across in Sadiq Khan’s speech too. Khan’s speech wasn’t without some serious high points. It demonstrated a willingness to consider hard solutions instead of tough ones, searching for the root causes of crime in poverty and recognising that many mentally ill people who commit crimes are being let down by the State:-
“We need a Justice Secretary who’ll persuade the Education Secretary that cutting Sure Start or family intervention projects is a false economy. One who’ll work with health colleagues to end the scandal of those with mental health problems languishing in our prisons.”
Still, the language of fear was there. I know there’s no room in a Conference speech for nuanced explanations of policy but the words which are chosen speak volumes. A phrase like “reckless gambles with public safety” to describe the proposed privatisation of the Probation Service makes me slightly queasy because it points to a party which still feels the politics of fear are good enough, or that they have no alternative way of reaching the public. Yvette Cooper ended her speech saying we need hope. I agree but hope doesn’t spring from the language of fear. Similarly, it may be popular to do so but I don’t believe it’s necessary to use the language of retribution to oppose the idea of plea bargaining (as Khan did).

Khan defended the European Convention of Human Rights in his speech but that’s hardly a bravo moment. The fact that things have got so bad that the Tories think they can get away with withdrawing from the European Convention of Human Rights just goes to show how screwed up our country’s attitudes to human rights have become. It’s also hard to ignore the fact that earlier this year Labour abstained on the retrospective amendment to the workfare scheme on the basis that the country couldn’t afford to compensate people who’d lost out under the procedurally flawed scheme. Another instance of Labour delivering the message we can have all the human rights we like as long as they don’t inconvenience the Government of the day?

Moving on: Legal Aid. If you want to know more about Legal Aid under New Labour, I put a long series of links covering most of their time in office together in Legal Aid: the New Labour years after a more general brief history of Legal Aid in Call me a cynic but. You don’t need to read all of the links to see why lawyers might be suspicious of One Nation Labour. Willie Bach led a heartening, bitterly long fight against LASPO in the House of Lords and remains committed to Legal Aid but when he tried to get a vote of delegates on the protection of Legal Aid at the Conference he lost, despite Labour Commons mps having mouthed the right words on LASPO and proposals for further “reforms” in the arenas of public and criminal law this year. There was no blanket defence of Legal Aid at the Conference. It didn’t rate a mention in Miliband’s speech at all. Sadiq Khan only mentioned Legal Aid in relation to judicial review proceedings and cases involving domestic violence. We desperately need it to be preserved in those cases but it’s very much the thin edge of the wedge. It’s entirely possible, when you look at the specific examples he chose that he was just sticking to examples which he knew would elicit public sympathy but it feels like a door closing on LASPO.

The trouble with looking at a Conference is that I’m only ever going to be able to skim the surface of what’s been said because of all the fringe events. I didn’t even try in relation to social security but I did look at the coverage of a panel organised by the Legal Aid Practitioners Group on Monday, where Shadow Attorney General Emily Thornberry emphasised the importance of Legal Aid but also said:
“‘there won’t be a lot of money around’ and so the party would ‘have to be careful about what we spend our money on.'”
This was after the ballot on opposing the Government’s reforms was defeated at the weekend. So it’s business as usual for Labour then. It’s laughable that she complained that constituents were going to their mps for legal advice but couldn’t always get it because not all mps are former lawyers. Many are and, given the likelihood of many practising lawyers losing their jobs between now and 2015, I’m sure she could find some more than willing to stand in the election in return for tripling their salary and having the opportunity to provide free legal advice to their constituents.

I suppose I can at least take heart that there are former lawyers in the shadow cabinet speaking out against reforms. It’s a huge step up from people like Jack Straw muttering about opticians. Anyway, enough. Labour will do (or to a greater extent I suspect, not do) what they will do when it comes to these issues. I only hope that people like Lord Bach keep speaking out because public opinion won’t change if they don’t and only public opinion is likely to change Labour’s position on this. I’m also pretty proud of the way my profession’s handling the crisis. Not at the top: frankly the Law Society seems to have abysmal pr skills and the Bar Council had the advantage of an excellent president last year but probably isn’t any more reliable than the Law Society. We need people to see that we’re human and have strong values – too often all the public sees are the deeply embarrassing instances of individual lawyers demonstrating they’re utterly out of touch. Remember Jerry Hayes’ appearance on Question Time earlier this year? The one where he argued that rape didn’t happen if there’s no resulting conviction, dismissing the trauma of the thousands of women who’ve chosen not to report being raped. I can’t remember who the other embarrassment was that day or why but I remember tweeting that the Bar Council must be in need of a stiff drink because someone else had been shown up in the papers on the same day. And then in August we had the barrister who portrayed a child victim of a sex offence as a Lolita. I’m proud of all the individual lawyers writing blogs, responding to consultations, writing to mps, attending demonstrations and tweeting who counter negative images like these and the image of uncaring city fat cats living the high life. I’m proud that people outside the legal profession are getting to see that a lot of us truly care. It’s passionate lawyers who got over 100,000 signatures for the Save UK Justice petition. By the way, the petition closes on 10 October. If you haven’t already signed it, please do. We desperately need to demonstrate to all parties that Legal Aid has the backing of non-lawyers. It’s the only way we’ll be able to convince anyone to push back against the reforms. They haven’t and won’t just take lawyers’ livelihoods. They have and will take away your rights.

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