‘Ive just come back from Burma, says Shauneen Lambe, and there they are trying to build a legal model to protect fundamental human rights. But here, were eroding those rights.’
Shauneen Lambe thinks Chris Grayling’s proposed cuts to legal aid could destroy the rule of law in the UK. ‘I am genuinely scared for this country,’ she says with great feeling when we meet for coffee. ‘I have British and Irish passports and, if Grayling’s changes go through, I’d seriously think about bringing the Irish one back into use.’
‘I’ve just come back from Burma,’ she says, ‘and there they are trying to build a legal model to protect fundamental human rights. But here [if Grayling’s proposed cuts go through], we’re eroding those rights.’
Talk of erosion of rights and miscarriages of justice in a country whose legal system is revered the world over sounds deeply odd, but the strength of feeling in the legal profession against Grayling’s cuts of £220 million, and his plan to give defendants the cheapest, not the best, lawyer, is intense. With inexperienced lawyers being used in cases beyond their expertise, and many defendants without representation at all, it is feared miscarriages of justice will become much more frequent.
Lambe can cite examples from her own practice of where the cuts would ruin lives. As a UK-qualified barrister, she set up Just for Kids Law in 2006 to help children between the ages of 10 and 18 who find themselves involved, or on the brink of being involved, in the UK justice system, and who need help and guidance. Her work is publicly funded and a great deal of it will not be possible if Grayling has his way.
A bad crowd
Just for Kids Law has recently worked with a fifteen year old boy who had been excluded from a school in North London for disruptive behaviour. He subsequently fell in with a bad crowd, and found himself facing charges of robbery. His mother contacted Lambe, worried that her son suffered from Asperger’s, but she could not afford to have him diagnosed.
The charity secured the diagnosis of Asperger’s, which accounted for the child’s disruptive behaviour at school, ensured that the robbery charges were dropped and arranged for the child to return to another school with 20 hours per week of classroom support. A conviction, as Lambe points out, would not only have been unnecessarily costly for the UK taxpayer, but would probably have ruined the young boy’s chances of returning to education.
In another recent case, Lambe paid £1,000 out of her own pocket to have a deportation order for a young girl living in the UK re-examined. It transpired that there was a mistake in the order, and it was retracted.
Pictured above: Lawyers protesting against legal aid cuts
Just for Kids Law’s work is crucial in ensuring that young people who have made mistakes do not end up serving custodial sentences that will ruin their lives and place an unnecessary burden on the UK taxpayer. As Lambe points out, though, Grayling seems to care little about justice or human rights, ‘so maybe it’s better to object in the only language he seems to understand: finance.’
But here too there seems to be little logic to his proposals. As reported in The Times today, Britain’s most senior judge, Lord Neuberger of Abbostbury, has come out against Grayling’s cuts, arguing that good lawyers save money and bad lawyers increase costs: ‘Less legal aid means more unrepresented litigants and worse lawyers, which will lead to longer hearings and more judge time,’ he says.
Barristers and solicitors have united as never before in opposing the Justice secretary’s proposed decimation of our legal system, and when you see dedicated frontline practitioners like Lambe genuinely worried about the effects they will have, it’s easy to understand why. ‘When you see a country like Burma,’ she says, ‘you realise how important that rule of law is to a properly functioning society. [Grayling’s cuts] are a serious challenge to the rule of law in the UK.’