Why the legal aid disruptors are worth their weight in gold
By David Kirwan
The #TakeYourMPToWork campaign has attracted a positive response from MPs willing to observe first-hand why comprehensive legal advice is so vital, says David Kirwan
The legal profession has long felt a collective sense of persecution by the apparent determination of parliament to continue implementing its legal cuts programme against all odds. Despite all evidence pointing to the fact that this move has, so far at least, been little short of disastrous – the powers that be have pursued their pruning programme with the sort of dedication that tends to be displayed by only the most dedicated of gardeners. The negative effect of these cuts has prompted a group of highly motivated lawyers to take positive action by attempting to introduce members of parliament (MPs) to the realities of trying to help clients access justice without the prerequisite funds.
The Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL) group campaigns for a sustainable legal aid system providing good quality legal help to those who couldn’t otherwise afford to pay for it. YLAL has joined forces with the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Legal Aid to invite MPs via Twitter to shadow legal practitioners. This #TakeYourMPToWork campaign has seen both groups tweet MPs directly, urging them to visit law centres and legal advice clinics during June to see first-hand why comprehensive legal advice is so vital. Such a savvy move puts pressure on MPs to respond rather than turn their backs on the issue. Failing to engage exposes them to potential online criticism from the very public they’re trying so hard to impress.
Equally, it also wins them a collective round of applause should they display a willingness to get involved. It’s a strategy that’s showing signs of success: a number of MPs have thrown their hat in this very public ring. The new legal aid minister Paul Maynard, shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon, Tom Brake, Yasmin Qureshi, Christina Rees, Anna Soubry, Caroline Lucas, Alex Chalk, and many others have signed up to take part at the time of writing. It’s also a prime example of the hard lesson the more traditional solicitors among us are having to learn: it’s no longer enough to try to adapt our businesses to the everchanging challenges that face our profession – we also have to adapt our minds. To avoid any misunderstanding, let me make myself clear: I am not referring to a defeatist, ‘throw down our swords’ acceptance of the changing economic circumstances that have led us to our fate. Instead, I’m talking about the sort of change in attitude necessary to stand beside our younger counterparts and applaud their efforts to fight back. As the saying goes, ‘If you don’t like something, change it’.
These proactive, politically-aware young professionals are doing just that. Carefullyworded letters of complaint and grumbling in the corridors are not for them! They have the knowledge that many solicitors are only just starting to understand – that through the many tools available to them, including the very public forum of social media, they can make a difference. And they will. Having dipped my own toe in the world of politics in the past, I understand that bringing about any kind of change can be an achingly slow process. So – I take my hat off to YLAL and I applaud the APPG on Legal Aid for their part in this initiative and taking definitive action on the issue of legal aid. They’re conducting research, writing reports, making recommendations – and they are making waves. This kind of hard-hitting, frontline contact could bring home to MPs just what’s at stake; or maybe it will prove to be another box-ticking exercise that seasoned media operators understand will win them attention for all the right reasons.
We don’t know for sure what success such a move will bring; but if we don’t at least try – we can look forward to a gradual disappearance of the criminal solicitor role as we know it, and a continued ebbing away of the access to justice that our legal system has, for so long, held dear.