Shami Chakrabarti: I haven’t heard a single promise from Mr Khan

by Carl Gardner on June 8, 2014

Speaking to the Tory Reform Group yesterday, Liberty’s director Shami Chakrabarti attacked not just the coalition government for its legal aid cuts, but Labour and the political class as a whole – which she said doesn’t really believe in the rule of law. Showing frustration with Labour’s front bench, she said she’d not heard any positive promise on legal aid from them.

This does begin with New Labour,

she began.

I don’t call it the decimination of legal aid anymore, because I suppose the strict definition of decimation would be one in ten – and this is far more drastic than that.

Rights are “fairy tales” without access to advice and representation in the courts, she said, and

The law of the land becomes a dead letter in a sealed book … if in practice nobody has access to advice and understanding of it, or indeed to enforcement of it; in the end the powerful get wise to the fact that the vulnerable can be abused, because they will have no remedy. And that can be employers; and that can be government, at a local or national level; and that can be big business  – and the list goes on. That can be the brutal husband or the malicious wife, whoever it is that’s taking your child away.

Under New Labour, she said,

we had a government, much of it stuffed by lawyers, it has to be said – you know, if you really want to destroy somebody’s plumbing, get a plumber to do it … It’s a significant betrayal … it was a government that was stuffed with some very clever and rather successful lawyers, many of them from smart commercial or quasi-commercial practices, people like Lord Falconer, like Tony Blair himself. These were not people at the cutting edge of legal aid during their times at the bar. These were people who made a few quid, and did quite well in practice. They were fat cats … they were the real fat cats  But they turned on public servants – that’s what I think legal aid lawyers are …

and she compared their situation with doctors.

what about NHS consultants? Let’s do some “compare and contrast” on the funding pattern, and look at for example what happened with Dr Reid’s settlement for general practitioners and how well they at one stage did out of that, compared to many legal aid solicitors who are doing some very difficult social work that is an integral part of their practice.

But she quickly returned to her critique of politicians:

I believe that the New Labour attack on legal aid was part of a broader constitutional attack on checks and balances, and the rule of law. A lot of it was quite spiteful; and it was about government being held to account. There was also an ideological attack on, for example, the criminal justice system and due process.

The first stage of this political attack, she said, was a rhetorical condemnation of “rich” legal aid lawyers and denigration of the idea of justice. Then

You begin by taking people out of the protection of legal aid, more and more on the basis of their means … With any public service, if fewer and fewer … people actually have access to it, then you’re actually dividing people, so that so many people don’t think it’s relevant to them, and don’t have a stake in it any more.

She said she thought Labour’s cuts to legal aid and its getting “cold feet on human rights very early on”, together with 9/11 and the war on terror, caused “terrible collateral damage in relation to the Human Rights Act” because

people who get access to the infant Human Rights Act … the people who are actually in those cases appear to either be movie stars like Catherine Zeta-Jones, protecting their privacy because they can afford to do that, or they are refugees and terror suspects, or criminal defendants still getting their criminal legal aid … and not “people like us” … People on lower and middle income are not part of this narrative.

The result of these cuts plus the coalition’s “new attack”, she said, is that

We no longer live in a country where, if something bad is going to happen to you and you need legal advice and representation you can be sure of getting it; that is no longer the situation. And to me that is absolutely astonishing. And I would never have imagined that, growing up. But of course what will happen over time is that people won’t remember having grown up in a country like that, and this will be the norm – unless politically, we can do something about it now.

That thought, however, made Shami Chakrabarti turn a sharp critical eye on Labour, whose spokesmen Sadiq Khan and Andy Slaughter have taken part with her in rallies against legal aid cuts:

We’ve seen the shadow Lord Chancellor stand up and have a good rant at these rallies, but I haven’t heard a single promise from either Mr Khan, or any other member of the  shadow cabinet … for a reversal in this policy, or any positive promise on legal aid; and I think it’s just absolutely essential that between now and the general election, in fact between now and a relatively imminent publication of various manifestos, that some promises are secured

because, she said,

people should not be allowed to come and speak at rallies on legal aid, if they are elected politicians, and not say what they are positively going to do to turn this supertanker around, because sticks and stones at the other side are not going to help.

The attack on justice has been a “sustained campaign”, she said,

it’s been a cross-party campaign by the political classes, who frankly are constitutionally illiterate … my generation in politics, people in their mid and late forties and early fifties who basically don’t really believe in the rule of law, or they think it’s for “the people”, and not for those who govern the people, and don’t actually believe in power being held to account including in the courts

and she spoke of the difficulty and importance in her view of reversing recent policy:

it’s going to take a lot of work and some time to build a new more progressive legal aid system but … it’s absolutely essential, because the costs will be well beyond the costs to fair trials, or the legal profession – the costs will be to society across the board when the vulnerable are not protected from the powerful and from each other. And ultimately we’re talking about lawlessness.

What’s needed, she said, is to “tell stories of justice and injustice”, and

to secure some new policy commitments from all the main political parties, to come up with some kind of positive progressive mean of putting back access to advice and representation.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tim June 9, 2014 at 10:02

Thanks for putting the radio talk into text. There are a lot of good things on the radio that are not accessible to Deaf people.

I’m a big fan of Shami Chakrabarti and cannot fault any of her statements here.

2 Liz Horn June 12, 2014 at 00:24

The absence of recourse to the law via legal aid for all but the rich at one end of the scale and the most vulnerable at the other is an absolute scandal, and thank goodness Shami Chakrabarti has the guts to stand up and say so.

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