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.

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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.