In Defence Of Our Legacy

As the London 2012 Olympics drew to a close Jessie J sang:

“It’s not about the money, money, money…. Ain’t about the cha-ching, cha-ching, ain’t about the ba-bling, ba-bling… forget about the price tag”

…and by the end of the Olympics most of us had. At first there were “bah humbugs” as the flame made its way to London.  We held our collective breath as newspaper after newspaper predicted a shambolic Games.  However, the opening ceremony enchanted us and by the time we won our first medal we were all hooked.  Jessica Ennis, Greg Rutherford, Sir Chris Hoy, Charlotte Dujardin, Ben Ainslie, Mo Farah, Katherine Grainger et al have become household names.   The worries about terrorist attacks, the weather, empty seats and the cost to the public purse were cast aside in the heady knowledge that this was the right thing to do; for us and for our future.   The importance of community has become clear and a pride in the things that make us British has developed.

In the post-Games glow even the hardened cynics amongst us might find it hard to argue with the sentiments of Eddie Butler, expressed in his dulcet Welsh tones as he re-capped the fortnight’s triumphs:

“This nation in debt, our land of doubters had set a new tone….  Could we afford it?  Probably not.  Was it worth it?  The people who came out and made the Games, these London Games of 2012, have already answered that question.  ‘Inspire a generation!’ the billboard slogan that became the Olympic wish that came true.”

I’ve heard it said that this is the first Games where the concept of legacy has been considered.  Hopefully that says something about our culture; that we cherish positive concepts and ensure their continuity.   Prime Minister David Cameron stated:

“I want one of the legacies of these Games to be our athletes triumphing in Rio 2016 and in future Olympic Games.  Guaranteeing… funding will help ensure that happens.”

So, the government recognises that if we want to preserve Britain’s inspirational heritage, money should be no object.

Many of the things that make Britain special were apparent during the Olympics, from our multiculturalism to our beautiful architecture and countryside, to our stoicism in the face of torrential rain.  The Olympics opened with Danny Boyle’s critically acclaimed ode to that Great British concept, the National Health Service (NHS), focusing the worlds’ attention on the importance of an institution that provides an essential service to those in need of care, whatever their background or financial circumstances.  The fact that we launched such a scheme makes us special.  As Aneurin Bevan said at the NHS inauguration on 4 July 1948 at Park Hospital, Urmston:

“The eyes of the world are turning to Britain… We now have the moral leadership of the world”

When the eyes of the world turned to Britain for London 2012 they found a country where people have strived for quality healthcare, a good standard of education and access to justice for all.  Even those not given to displays of patriotism can agree that we should all be proud of our nation’s achievements and they emphatically include our legally aided justice system.  The fact that a good standard of representation is afforded to everybody has, to borrow Bevan’s phrase, long given us moral leadership of the world.  It is inspirational, it is our legacy…   what are we doing to protect it?

First of all, the public need to understand what it is that needs protecting.  Reading through the comments on an article written by Michael Mansfield QC for The Guardian online it is depressingly clear that there are many out there who believe that lawyers are “fat cats” and “parasites” involved in a “stitch up between the political class and the legal profession”.  “Boo bloody hoo!” writes one, “Less of my tax money being given to lawyers to represent terrorists and murderers”.  `Perhaps the public mood is best summed up in this comment:  “…the idea that some lawyers profit mightily from the way the law operates… tempers sympathy for people who will lose legal aid entitlement.”

It is not the lawyers who will suffer long term it is Britain.  Sadly, the profession will be forced to adapt. Years from now, if the cuts continue, the law will recruit only from the middle classes and upwards who can afford the meagre wages offered after a long, financially taxing, slog towards qualification.  Lawyers will start to work to rule, clocking in at nine and out at five like everyone else.  The quality of advocacy and representation will suffer; things will be missed, cases will be lost that should have been won and so on.  Rather than profiting from the way the law operates, lawyers will turn from publicly funded law and take on cases only on the basis that the client can pay.  Not to mention that the cuts do not apply purely to legal aid rates for representation, but to the provision of interpreters, forensics experts and the like.  Where does all that leave our legacy?  Michael Mansfield QC’s view is that “A pillar of post-war society has been shattered by the legal aid cuts…”

Law centres and Citizens Advice Bureaus are closing, and cannot prop up the ever-growing gap where legal aid is simply not available for those in need of help.  In the area I have practiced for twelve years, criminal law, we have seen the introduction of contributions expected from a defendant which sometimes exceed their means or indeed the value of the work done.  In my recent experience excessive contributions have prompted suicide notes, consideration of pleading guilty because it costs less and decisions to act as a defendant in person which have ended up costing the tax payer more in time and resources because the defendant lacks expertise. I bear in mind a case I once did where not only was the defendant wrongly accused of police assault, he was convicted and appealed successfully only after fresh evidence came to light that showed he himself had been the victim of an assault by the police.  Without legal aid justice would never have prevailed.

Research indicates that the financial case for the legal aid cuts is flawed and counterproductive as two thirds of the savings would be counterbalanced by the ensuing social and economic burden.  Expensive or not, like the Olympics and the NHS, like Shakespeare, haggis, bitter, Big Ben, tikka masala, morris dancing, Coronation Street, rugby/cricket/football/…. our legally aided justice system is what makes us special.  Ken Clarke himself stated “Access to justice is the mark of a civilised society”. Ironic as those words may sound coming from a member of the government apparently intent on demolishing such access, they hold true. In 2010 I took a sabbatical to travel and explore the criminal justice systems in the places I visited.  One of the main things I learned was that Britain has a legal heritage to be proud of.  We get it right, which is, incidentally, what Lord Coe said about London 2012.

So, let’s set aside our concerns about the “price tag”, because as Jessie J sang “it’s not about the money” it’s about building a future to be proud of, as our predecessors did with the introduction of legal aid, the NHS and, more recently, London 2012.  I am proud to be a legal aid barrister, proud to be in a Chambers where a member – James Collins – was awarded Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year 2006 and proud to be British.  Let’s defend our Great British heritage – justice for all.


Gwen Henshaw is a Barrister at Central Chambers, Manchester who specialises in criminal law. You can read her Chambers entry here.