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Question Time 2009 — by Rachel Taylor and Jenny Bond
Question Time 2009 was held on 15 October at South Bank University. This year’s event, which celebrated the 60th anniversary of legal aid, was entitled ‘Legal Aid: Life Begins at 60?’
It was appropriate then, that the evening commenced with Professor George Daly of the College of Law stepping into the shoes of Michael Aspel to host an hour long presentation: ‘Legal aid, this is your life!’ Professor Daly plotted the fascinating evolution of legal aid, from the establishment of the office of ‘defensor’ by Emperor Valentinian in the 4th century, through to the Magna Carta and up to and beyond the Carter reforms. Professor Daly illustrated legal aid’s successes and the challenges it has faced. His presentation included interviews with some of the most prominent champions of legal aid over recent years.
First, Edward Fitzgerald QC described his experiences of the role legal aid plays in ensuring vulnerable people have access to justice. He used his own cases, including SSHD ex p Anderson andVenables and Thompson v UK, to illustrate how access to the courts is often the only means of redress for vulnerable people, and that this access is reliant upon the adequate provision of legal aid. Ed voiced his concern over any withdrawal of legal aid provision, commenting that there is ‘nothing more sinister than government rhetoric that they do not wish to give legal aid to unpopular people’.
Steve Hynes, director of Legal Action Group, then described the humble beginnings of Law Centres. The first, North Kensington Law Centre, opened in 1970 in an old butcher’s shop. Steve reflected upon the crucial role Law Centres have played in access to justice, particularly their instrumentality in the development of social welfare law and employment law.
Third to join Professor Daly on stage was Ed Cape, Professor of Criminal Law and Practice at the University of the West of England. Ed discussed the significance of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE). In particular, he stressed the importance of the right to legal representation for detained individuals, which was first introduced by PACE. He reflected upon the challenges that this posed for the legal profession, and the opposition that was encountered from the police service when the Act was first introduced. Ed highlighted the importance of adequate legal representation, using the case of Paul Blackburn (who was wrongly convicted and imprisoned for 24 years) as an example of the consequences that can result from any failure to protect this right.
June Venters QC, the first practicing woman solicitor to be appointed to Queen’s Counsel, vehemently opposed recent government proposals relating to legal aid. She compared the Carter reforms to a tsunami: rushed, without any sense of direction, crushing the innocent and vulnerable, and dependent upon professionals to implement a rescue package. June, a family and criminal law practitioner, stressed there can be no ‘quick fix’ for vulnerable children and those deprived of their liberty, and she implored Sir Ian Magee to consider the consequences of any further cutbacks in legal aid.
Finally, two young legal aid lawyers, Omar Khan and Gwendolen Morgan, spoke of the great importance of legal aid work and the value of pursuing a career in this sphere. However, they also voiced their concerns about the future of legal aid and, in particular, the obstacles deterring young lawyers from entering the sector.
Professor Daly concluded legal aid’s ‘This is your life’ presentation by emphasising the successes that have been achieved through the provision of legal aid, and how crucial this has been to the protection of the vulnerable. He juxtaposed these successes with the current uncertainty regarding legal aid, thereby exposing the injustices that will certainly result in a future deprived of the adequate provision of legal aid.
After a buffet interval, the second half of the evening comprised a lively ‘Question Time’ debate hosted by Young Legal Aid Lawyers’ patron Jon Snow (Channel 4 News). This year’s panellists were Lord Bach (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Justice), Carolyn Regan (Chief Executive of the Legal Services Commission), Henry Bellingham MP (Conservative Shadow Minister for Justice), Afua Hirsch (The Guardian), and Kat Craig (Young Legal Aid Lawyers).
The debate provided insight into the Government’s vision for the £2 billion legal aid budget, which is not likely to increase, it was confirmed. Lord Bach expressed his commitment to separating the criminal and civil legal aid budgets. He also said social welfare law should be prioritised as it has so far been the ‘poor relation’ of legal aid.
Henry Bellingham discussed the Conservative ideas for legal aid, including a contingency legal aid fund and increased Before the Event (BTE) insurance. He also announced, for the first time publicly, the Conservative party’s proposal to introduce the French system of holding all nationwide client monies in a single bank account so that it can earn a high rate of interest, which can be injected into the legal aid budget.
One of the central themes of the evening was how to tackle the lack of social mobility within the legal aid sector. Sara Lomri, addressing the panel, highlighted the limited number of LSC training contract grants and the large debts faced by those entering the profession as issues contributing to poor social mobility in legal aid. Afua Hirsch explained how clients suffer because of the lack of diversity in the profession and the fact that many talented lawyers do not go into legal aid because of financial barriers. In response to another question, Kat Craig talked about the importance of quality supervision and support for young lawyers in ensuring good quality legal advice and representation for clients and a sustainable legal aid system.
The debate became heated when the talk turned to pay rates. Lord Bach sought to justify the low rates in legal aid by saying lawyers choose this field because it is their “vocation”. June Venters QC, responded “I have one word to say to Lord Bach: exploitation.” Pay rates should be commensurate to those enjoyed by other professions, she later went on.
The debate concluded by looking at the Ministry of Justice’s recent consultation ‘Refocusing on priority cases’ and the announcement of the Magee review, which will consider the potential separation of the civil and criminal legal aid budgets, amongst other matters. The MOJ consultation was denounced by YLAL Chair Laura Janes as being the death knoll for legal aid and the ability of people to hold the state to account. Unfortunately the Minister’s response did little to alleviate these fears.
The event, which was attended by over 260 audience members, was kindly hosted by London South Bank University and the South London Law Society. YLAL is grateful to the following organisations for their generous sponsorship of the event:
Doughty Street Chambers
Legal Action Group
Legal Aid Practitioners Group
The College of Law
TV Edwards Solicitors