Exhibits A-D : four reasons why the legal aid reforms need to be stopped

The legal aid reforms will lead to innocent people being jailed. A barrister's wife explains why.

My blog, A Barrister’s Wife, started because I wanted to contribute to the Save UK Justice campaign against the changes to the criminal justice system outlined in the consultation paper Transforming Legal Aid: Delivering a more credible and efficient system. Some of the key changes are as follows:

  • Removal of the defendant’s right to choose a lawyer
  • Legal aid lawyers to be paid the same whether a defendant pleads guilty or goes to trial
  • Reduction of the income threshold at which defendants will be eligible for legal aid
  • Reduction of the number of legal aid providers from 1600 to 400
  • Competitive tendering for legal aid contracts

As things stand, these changes will be brought in under secondary legislation, without any debate in parliament. One of Save UK Justice’s aims is to get over 100 000 signatures on the Save UK Justice e-petition, so that these proposals might be debated in parliament.

When the campaign first started a few weeks ago I noticed that most of the conversation about the proposals was between lawyers. There was very little interest or input from non-legal people or the mainstream media. There seemed to be two reasons for this:

  • the public were unaware of the proposals and didn’t understand what they would mean in practice and in any case
  • the public wouldn’t care, because the only people perceived to be affected were lawyers and criminals

As the wife of a criminal barrister I have more insight into the workings of the justice system than most non-legal people. I decided to write a blog to try and debunk the myths that are ingrained in the public perception and to explain why these proposals should be of interest to everyone.

Initial posts covered the myth of the fat cat lawyer and the myth of the scumbag criminals. I then began looking in more detail at four of my husband’s cases. This “exhibits series” provides real life examples of how normal, law abiding, people can end up on the wrong side of the law. Each post concludes by explaining why the story matters and how each defendant might have fared under the MOJ’s proposals.

The Exhibits are:

Exhibit A – the “child pornographer”

Exhibit B – the “murderer”

Exhibit C – the “paedophile”

Exhibit D – the “fraudster”

There will be a Justice for Sale rally and demonstration in London on Wednesday 22 May, more information here.

Barrister's Wife is a barrister's wife. She writes a pseudonymous blog which offers a behind closed doors view of the justice system.

All photos: India Bourke
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“They cut, we bleed”: activists Sisters Uncut protest closures of women's services

 “Our blood should not pay for our rape.”

Over 500 domestic violence survivors and support workers processed through central London this weekend. The protest, staged by the feminist direct action group Sisters Uncut, mourned the women’s services that are losing out as a result of the government's austerity drive.

Since November 2014 the group has occupied streets, burned copies of the Daily Mail, and hijacked the Suffragette film premiere. But on Saturday the mood was somber. In Soho Square the group staged a symbolic funeral service. Attendees stood in a protective circle, fists raised, while members took turns to read out the names of the scores of women who’ve been killed by men in the past year:  “Anne Dunkley, 67; Nadia Khan, 24; Lisa Anthony, 47…”. The youngest was just 14 years old.

The service culminated in a promise “to never forget” the dead, and also to protect the living: “We must love and support one another; we have nothing to lose but our chains".

As the protestors passed St Martins in the Fields Church, dressed in black veils and funeral attire, the crowd of passers-by broke into spontaneous applause. “It gave me goosebumps”, Caroline, an activist and former victim of abuse told me. “You expect people on the march to be supportive but not the people on the street. I’ve been on other marches and people normally complain about you being selfish and blocking up the streets but this response makes you feel like people do  care.”

The show of public support is especially welcome in the aftermath of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement. Cuts to local authority budgets have already led to the closure of over 30 domestic violence services since 2010, including Eaves, a charity that provided services for single, low-income and vulnerable women.

Further erosions to local council budgets will only put more services and lives at risk, activists say. Also of concern is Osborne’s decision to devolve responsibility for raising a social care tax (of up to 2 per cent on council tax) to local authorities. This tips hostility to tax increases away from central government to local authorities, and could place greater pressure on women’s services to compete for funding.

The Chancellor offered a supposed silver lining to the cuts with the promise that VAT money raised from the EU’s compulsory tax on sanitary products will be ringfenced for women’s charities, such as the Eve Appeal and Women’s Aid.

The implication, however, that only women are to pay for helping the victims of domestic violence was met with derision from Sisters Uncut. As the marchers approached their final destination in Trafalgar Square, red dye turned the square’s famous fountains the colour of blood. “This blood won’t wash the blood from Osborne’s hands,” read one tampon-draped banner; “Our blood should not pay for our rape”, read another.

For those on the march, the cuts are an affront on many levels. All those I spoke to worked in some form of public service; everything from housing to foster care. But some have had to move out of the women’s services sector for the lack of funding.

Louisa used to work for a domestic violence service in London until it was forced to close last month. “I’m here because I’ve witnessed first hand what the cuts are doing to women and how much the organisations are having to squeeze what they can provide.”

All public services have legitimate claims to support - from the 14-strong police team that escorted the marchers, to the sweepers who were left to dredge the protesters’ roses out of the fountains and brush away the tampons that had fallen from their banners.

The danger, however, according to Caroline, is that the needs of domestic violence victims are all too easy to sideline: “This is by its nature something that goes on behind closed doors,” she says. As funding tightens, these voices musn’t be squeezed out.

Sisters Uncut is an intersectional group open to all who identify as women. The national domestic violence helpline offers help and support on 0808 2000 247. Members of the LGBT communities can also access tailored support from Broken Rainbow on 0800 9995428.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.