On Friday 20th April, the Greater Manchester Law Centre (GMLC) hosted a panel on the topic of Legal Aid and the Future of Free Access to Justice. Speakers included Richard Burgon, MP for Leeds East and Shadow Justice Secretary, Joe Mensah-Dankwah, Partner at Foresters Solicitors and board member of Black Solicitors Network, Siobhan Taylor-Ward, Young Legal Aid Lawyers Vice Chair and GMLC trainee solicitor, and Lord William Bach, Leicestershire Police and Crime Commissioner and chair of the Bach Commission. The evening was chaired by GMLC Development Worker Roz Burgin.
GMLC are pleased to announce the success of the event, which was well attended and included varied and insightful contributions from panel and audience members.
A pledge to restore Legal Aid for housing advice
The audience first heard from Richard Burgon, who described the Legal Aid landscape and the effect of the cuts. Notably, he announced a new policy to restore publicly funded advice for housing.
“The withdrawal of legal advice in many housing cases has weakened tenants’ rights, which can only benefit rogue landlords. Restoring this legal aid for housing advice will help tens of thousands of people resolve their housing issues and regain their housing rights.
Prevention is better than cure and this policy will help stop problems like damp, leaking roofs or faulty electrics from spiralling out of control and causing tenants even greater misery” – Richard Burgon MP
Legal Aid and BME lawyers
Joe Mensah-Dankwah explained how the Windrush generation were able to set up independent legal practices through the availability of Legal Aid. He expressed his concern for the future of the profession:
“Where are the new generation of aspiring BME lawyers going to find their niche? How are the clients that we currently serve going to find representation?” – Joe Mensah-Dankwah
You can read the Black Solicitor’s Network Diversity League Table findings here.
Keeping up the fight
Siobhan Taylor-Ward further explained barriers to the legal profession. Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL)’s social mobility report was published in March 2018, and Siobhan explained that debt, low salaries and the need for unpaid work experience are preventing many young lawyers from practicing in Legal Aid. However, she passionately encouraged aspiring lawyers to keep up the fight:
“The type of work we do is extremely rewarding. And if we don’t try to work in Legal Aid, no-one will. Don’t give up” – Siobhan Taylor-Ward
You can read YLAL’s social mobility report here.
The right to justice
Lord William Bach commenced by praising the spirit of resistance of GMLC and all who had come out to support the fight for free access to justice, whilst explaining his own surprising connection to Manchester:
“I’m the great nephew of Emmeline Pankhurst, who of course was born in Manchester in 1858. She was brought up here, and married Richard Pankhurst, a radical Manchester lawyer, who, if he had been alive now, I suspect would either have been on the panel or in the audience. He would have supported what the Greater Manchester Law Centre is doing” – Lord William Bach
He went on to explain the findings of the Bach commission, including that the percentage of households eligible for legal aid has fallen from 80% to 29%. Crucially, he concluded with the Right to Justice Act: a tangible proposal coming out of the Bach Commission, which would establish a new right for individuals to receive reasonable legal assistance without costs they cannot afford.
You can download the Bach Commission’s report here.
Pro bono and public legal education
Questions from audience members included queries about the role of pro bono work in addressing access to justice. All panel members echoed the same concerns: that pro bono work cannot replace Legal Aid.
“[The Government] were misusing pro bono, thinking very seriously that it can be justification for getting rid of Legal Aid” – Lord William Bach
The Bach Commission report showed that nearly half of individuals who experience a legal problem put it down to ‘bad luck’. There was again agreement on the panel that legal rights must be known in order to be enforced.
Fighting together for free access to justice
Following further questions from the floor, the event was brought to a close by GMLC chair John Nicholson. He explained GMLC’s journey, from protesting cuts to advice services to defiantly opening our doors in August 2016. He urged everyone to support the fight for free access to justice, making clear that we cannot survive without donations and volunteers.
“While we are reliant on many free efforts of volunteers and lawyers, we call for the funding of a new generation of social welfare lawyers. And we are not just a campaign for access to advice, but access to justice. Justice for Hilsborough, justice for Orgreave, justice for Windrush, justice for Stephen Lawrence.
This is what Legal Aid should be for, not just sticking plaster on the legal system, but justice” – John Nicholson, GMLC chair