Inside, the rich celebrate Magna Carta. Outside, access to justice shrivels
The first thing you see when you visit the website of the Global Law Summit is a picture of Lady Justice with the words 'Business is Great' next to it. It is a particularly apt introduction to the politics behind this supposed celebration of the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, which takes place over the next three days in the Queen Elizabeth conference centre in Westminster.
As Peter Oborne noted in a majestic piece last month, the summit will bring together a managing partner of Goldman Sachs, a vice-president of the Barrick Gold Corporation, a Rothschild banker, Cherie Blair, London libel lawyers and Saunderson House, "a leading firm of independent wealth managers". It is a telling demonstration of the interests coalition justice policy serves.
What the website neglects to mention is that great line of the Magna Carta:
"To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice."
There's good reason for that. Outside the summit, lawyers, barristers and campaigners will gather to warn of the disintegration of Britain's legal standards. Maxine Peake of TV drama Silks will say:
"It's all too easy to talk about access to justice and the lofty principles of the rule of law. All too simple to host a glitzy event so that Corporate Britain PLC can bask in the glow of Magna Carta. But almost 800 years on, I'm not interested in the gloss. Because of massive legal aid cuts I'm worried about someone who hasn't got lots of money being able to defend themselves fairly if they're accused of a crime. I'm concerned about the state becoming less accountable and I'm worried about courts becoming affordable and accessible only to the rich."
In one of our two pieces on the crisis in British justice today, Bill Waddington, chair of the Criminal Law Solicitors' Association, argues reforms to legal aid are leaving many solicitors firms facing an existential crisis. He writes:
"The combination of this deep uncertainty and the lord chancellor's initial tranche of cuts means that those solicitors firms already on the brink are telling us they might as well shut up shop. Indeed, our research shows that up two thirds of them could disappear altogether, the corollary of which would be a massive restriction of access to justice for everyone."
Meanwhile, Jon Black, president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’' Association, warns that if current reforms are as disastrous as expected, we may see the rise of the currently-defunct Public Defender Service, with the state both prosecuting and defending an individual. He writes:
"You don't need to be a lawyer to see that, with so many cracks built into the bleak justice of the future, a sharp increase of miscarriages of justice, costly appeals, unrepresented defendants in our courts will become commonplace."
Under the coalition, a two-tier British justice system has been created: one for the rich and one for everyone else.
Reforms to judicial review have severely hindered the ability of the public or charities to challenge the actions of public bodies. This power would have been all-but wiped out if it was not for a rear-guard defence by the House of Lords.
Changes to legal aid meanwhile threaten to turn whole areas of the country into legal deserts. Anyone unable to afford their own lawyers may be left with no protection.
This is particularly pernicious in the case of children without parents or guardians, who are now often being left at the mercy of authorities without anyone representing their interest. As we reported last week, Simon Hughes' attempt to review this situation was quickly quashed by the Ministry of Justice. The department does not even bother to assess the implications of the changes it implements.
In fact, it now attempts to kill off any mention of its failings. Last night, Louis Appleby, an expert in suicide prevention and mental health, pulled out of a presentation on rising suicides after the MoJ demanded he not refer to falling prison staff numbers.
Have pulled out of presentation on rising prison suicide at MoJ tomorrow after being told not to refer to falling staff nos. #HowGovtWorks
— louis appleby (@ProfLAppleby) February 22, 2015
Whatever the Tories claims of being suspicious of the state, they have worked to significantly bolster its power over the individual. And whatever their claims of us all 'being in it together', justice is now increasingly the preserve of the rich.
In that context, Chris Grayling's corporate back-patting exercise, in the same room as the document which helped turn this country into a beacon of executive restraint, seems uniquely indecent. If a playwright was seeking a symbolic climax to his tale of justice corrupted by money and self-interest, he might well have avoided such a scenario for fear of it being too on the nose. Of the two celebrations of the Magna Carta taking place today, only the one on the street is worth recognising.