Today, 30th July 2013, marks 64 years of Legal Aid. We will Rally for Justice this afternoon, and here’s why:
Legal Aid gives everyone access to justice, which provides a vital safety net and makes our society a civilised one. In a democratic society, we all have a right to access justice and a right to a fair trial. Without legal aid, some are unable to resolve their legal problems.
The turning point was 64 years ago with the Legal Aid and Advice Act 1949.
Sometimes a legal aid funded case can:
– change the law;
– transform public opinion;
– influence government policy; and
– directly affect society.
Legal aid funds advice, help and representation to help people with their legal problems, such as:
– Actions against the police
– Clinical negligence
– Domestic abuse
– Welfare benefits
Here are some landmark Legal Aid funded cases:
Miners’ emphysema claims
In the 1960s and 1970s some miners got respiratory diseases such as emphysema. This was because the dust masks they wore in the mines were not good enough. Compensation totalling nearly £3.5 billion has been paid to hundreds of thousands of affected miners. Legal aid funded the miners and the court eventually decided in the miners’ favour in 1998.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s a drug called Thalidomide was prescribed to pregnant woman to combat morning sickness and help them sleep. It was withdrawn in 1961 when a link was made between women taking the drug and children born with stunted arms (phocomelia). An out-of-court settlement was reached in 1973, after 11 years, and led to the creation of The Thalidomide Trust, set up to administer the compensation payments.
The Cardiff Newsagent Three
The Cardiff Newsagent Three, Michael O’Brien (of the Cardiff Newsagent Three), Darren Hall and Ellis Sherwood, were wrongly convicted for the murder of a newsagent, Phillip Saunders. On October 12, 1987 Mr Saunders, 52, was battered with a spade outside his Cardiff home. The day’s takings from his kiosk had been stolen, and five days later he died of his injuries. The three men spent 11 years in jail before the Court of Appeal quashed the conviction in 1999.
Sean Hodgson walked free from the Court of Appeal in March 2009 after spending 27 years in prison. Sean’s freedom was secured through the help of his legal aid solicitor. This is one of the longest miscarriages of justice in the UK.
Sean was sentenced to life in 1982 for the murder of Teresa De Simone in Southampton. DNA tests have now proved he couldn’t possibly have carried out this crime. Miss Simone was found partially clothed in the back seat of her vehicle, which was stationed in the car-park of a pub in which she worked part-time. She had been raped and strangled. DNA taken from sperm found at the scene showed that Mr Hodgson was not culpable. The court quashed his conviction, calling it ‘unsafe’.
Seb won a clinical negligence case in November 2008. Seb was 4 when he fell ill on Christmas Day 1997. He had a rash on his back, sickness, high temperature and aversion to bright light. The GP was called out but said it was nothing serious. On Boxing Day Seb suffered a fit and was immediately rushed to hospital. He was diagnosed with meningitis and meningococcal septicaemia and had life-saving antibiotics. He was then taken to the Paediatric Intensive Care Unit in Guy’s Hospital, London. He was there for a month.
The delay in referring Seb to the hospital was a major factor in the serious injuries he was left with epilepsy and learning difficulties, his right leg amputated below the knee, damage to his left – leg later amputated, and the loss of the tips of 3 fingers.
A Kent solicitor took up his legally-aided claim In November 2008 and a settlement of £2.58 million was agreed. It will allow Seb and his family to move into a home specially-adapted to his needs.
Mark and Nicky
Mark and Nicky were accused of physically abusing their children after their son was found to have bone fractures. The local authority started care proceedings and their 3 children were forcibly adopted into separate homes.
Nicky was pregnant with their 4th child. They fled to Ireland in fear of the baby being taken away. After an ultimatum from social workers the couple returned to Britain and had their parenting skills assessed for 6 months. They were allowed to keep their baby.
The court heard the social worker assigned to the couple never believed that they had harmed their children. Nicky’s own research revealed that her child’s condition was caused by scurvy, due to a vitamin deficit. He was allergic to cow’s milk and wouldn’t eat solids and scurvy causes brittle bones.
With legal aid funding, the couple have succeeded in overturning the original care order regarding their other 3 children. The last hurdle is overturning the adoption orders. In English law, adoption is permanent and irreversible. The couple face the prospect of never seeing their 3 children again.
The Cardiff 3
Lynette White was brutally murdered on February 14th 1988. In November 1990 Stephen Miller, Tony Paris and Yusef Abdullahi were convicted of her murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.
In December 1992, the Court of Appeal quashed those convictions. Almost 10 years later, advances in DNA techniques led to the arrest of Jeffery Gafoor who, in July 2003, pleaded guilty to the murder of Lynette White.
The appeal was conducted with the assistance of legal aid.
The Guildford Four
The Guildford Four – as they were dubbed – were jailed for life in 1975 for bombing pubs in Guildford. The attacks left five people dead and over 100 injured. Paul Hill and Patrick Armstrong were also wrongfully sentenced for a bomb attack in Woolwich that killed two people.
They each served 15 years in prison before they had their convictions quashed by the Court of Appeal following an extensive inquiry into the original police investigation. As he emerged from the court, one of the four, Gerard Conlon, announced to the waiting crowds: “I have been in prison for something I did not do. I am totally innocent.”
Mr Conlon recently spoke a Legal Aid demo outside the Houses of Parliament in May 2013.