Justice in the Community: Do we get it?

After checking the latest tweets last week, I saw one particular tweet about a debate at the House of Commons. I could not resist. Not only do I want to attend because it is being held in a fascinating building with such history, but I want to meet a few fellow tweeters and hear what has to be said about the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act. I am particularly keen on listening to what Lord Willy Bach has to say. I have been following campaign against the Legal Aid bill for months and it is absolutely clear that he is a passionate man who is fighting for the greater good.

I arrange childcare, book the train tickets and pack some law books to read on the train. I do not get much time to read at home, so any time I get to myself, I make the most of it.

Walking up the stairs at Westminster tube station, there was a beautiful view at the top of Exit 3 and I was filled with excitement and nerves. I am a part time legal secretary at a criminal legal aid law firm, and a part time student of law, and am regularly involved in debates at work and University but this was my first opportunity of watching a debate up close. I imagined it to be a bit like being in the audience at Question Time.

I have arrived. I look up at Big Ben towering over me and have a moment of clarity. I have travelled over 2 hours to arrive here by myself. Me. At Westminster. Going to the House of Commons.

I walk round to the public entrance and tell the police guard I am here for a meeting in Committee Room 15. He tells me to go straight down. It’s raining, and I start walking down the slope to the entrance. The umbrella goes up. I get to the bottom and there is a small queue which does not appear to be going anywhere. A man taps me on the shoulder from behind and asks to share my umbrella. How can I refuse? He introduces himself as ‘Rob’ and shakes my hand. I feel slightly uncomfortable. On a side note, I have never been one for human contact. I don’t enjoy the shake of a hand, or the kiss on the cheek of a stranger. As I say, the queue is barely moving. We are stuck under the same umbrella in the rain. Let the small talk commence.

He asks why I am here today. I explain. He then informs me that he is here to discuss politics in Committee Room 10. He then proceeds to inform me his master plan of getting rid of any politician who has been born into the job and that he wants the public to elect ministers and politicians. I zone out slightly when he starts to talk about George Osborne and how much he hates him.

We eventually get down to the security checks and the umbrella goes down. I bid him farewell and head for the airport-like metal detectors. They scan my handbag. It contains a criminal law book, sunglasses (I certainly did not need them!) and some paracetamol. I have always thought that you can tell a lot about a woman by the contents of their handbag.

Finally get through security and, my, what a building it is. The lobby, the stairwell, every hall is crafted with a great amount of history and craft. It takes me 30 minutes to get from security checks to Committee Room 15 as I am trying to take in all the detail in architecture, the artwork, and the stained glass windows. It really is quite overwhelming.

I arrive and the room fills up quickly. I estimate 50 people in a small room with grand table and chairs with microphones and speakers. Again – overwhelming. Slightly feeling like I do not belong. I’m just me.

The speakers are Lord Willy Bach, the former justice secretary who led the campaign to oppose the LASPO Act, Matthew Ryder of Matrix Chambers, Roger Smith, Director of Justice, and Diane Abbott, MP of Hackney and Patron of the Hackney Community Law Centre. The debate is hosted by Jon Robins of www.thejusticegap.com – his profile just in case you are interested is at http://www.jonrobins.info/ He is quite something, and also by Hackney Community Law Centre, who seem to be doing an amazing job in their borough to help those who need it most. http://www.hclc.org.uk/

There is a buzz in the room.

The aim of this bill is to cut £350 million from a budget of around £2.2 billion. The government appear to be targeting the lower classes, those who are most vulnerable and who need legal aid the most. What with the social welfare benefit cuts and now this, I am not surprised that the people most affected, and who need the most help, feel like that are being isolated and cut off.

There is some talk about lawyers becoming innovative in order to find a way around the cuts. Innovation is all well and good but you need money, support and a possibility of giving up your own time and effort for not a lot of profit. Most newly qualified solicitors are doing the milk rounds and looking for a well paid job in the City. They want to work for the magic circle and from what I gather, they want as much money for their work as possible.

An interesting question raised was that of the question of the next generation of legal aid lawyers. An audience member spoke up. She works for Hammersmith Law Centre. She is a newly qualified solicitor who clearly has a heart. She is not in the job for money of fame, she wants to help people. As do some of the other members of the audience I spoke to after the event – John Storer of CDA solicitors in Lincolnshire, Raman of Noble solicitors in Hertfordshire.

Matthew Ryder should be a politician. He has a wonderful background story and seems to a solicitor with a heart, which I think legal field lacks at the moment.

I felt we found a voice and had a purpose. We knew what we had to. Bring our ideas and feelings out in to the community, and attempt to get the media involved. The more members of the public who are aware of the attack on the lower classes, the greater chance we have in fighting it.  It was great to see people and lawyers of all walks of life coming together to fight for such a good cause.

The quote of the night which summed up everybody’s thoughts was from Paul Heron: “Justice is like the Ritz. We all have access but can we afford it?”

A very long and tedious journey home but I had a wonderful evening and learnt so much. I cannot wait for the next event!!

You may find it interesting to read the Law Gazette’s views on the future under the LASPO Act. http://www.lawgazette.co.uk/features/a-way-through-future-under-laspo

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