Legal advice for doctors

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In their battle against an intransigent monotone Tory ideologue imposing unjust contracts the junior doctors can draw inspiration from the recent victory of legal aid lawyers.

In December 2012 Chris Grayling was promoted to minister of justice. Immediately he set to work putting his sole talent to use; asset stripping legal aid. The cuts meant the closure of 1,000 criminal legal aid firms to be replaced with the likes of Eddie Stobart Law. Morale among lawyers was at an absolute low and there was an overwhelming feeling of paralysis and powerlessness.

Then slowly lawyers began to get organised. The London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association (LCCSA) formed a committee pulling together those who wanted to fight back. They called a demonstration outside parliament. The turnout was enormous, with large numbers wearing “Truck Off Grayling” T-shirts. At the rally that followed at Friends Meeting House, organised with the Criminal Law Solicitors Association, the packed hall of 1,000 lawyers voted unanimously for action.

It became clear that this battle was in defence of the very essence of the 1949 Legal Aid Act, established to “open the doors of the courts freely to all persons who may wish to avail themselves of British justice without regard to the question of their wealth or ability to pay”. With that understanding the LCCSA in June 2013 brought together 50 organisations, including unions (Unite, PCS, Napo), charities (Liberty, the Howard League for Penal Reform) and campaigns to form the Justice Alliance.

The campaign helped give confidence to lawyers to see themselves as part of a wider struggle for justice. This culminated in solicitors’ and barristers’ first ever strike, where nationwide we refused to work the courts for half a day in January 2014. Six months later we had a full day strike and another marvellous rally outside parliament, joined by a hideous puppet of the minister of justice.

Even the barristers settling for their own deal at this time did not stop the solicitors. They joined with probation officers for a day of action challenging the cuts and Grayling’s obsession with privatisation. Grayling just carried on, repeating the same mantra about legal aid costs. Then two whistleblowers came forward and disclosed that the applications for contracts were processed by low paid temps with incentives of Mars bars. Even more embarrassing, a respected solicitors firm Edward Fail, Bradshaw & Waterson, established for 100 years in east London, was denied a contract because their “scores” were miscalculated. The fiasco meant the government faced a year of litigation as the Fair Crime Contract Alliance fought the unfair process.

Finally in January 2016 the new minister of justice, Michael Gove, pulled the plug. The whole expensive disaster of trying to force through unfair cuts had come to an end. After three years we had won.

As a co-founder of the Justice Alliance I am most proud of our exposing the hypocrisy of the Tory government’s celebration of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. We organised a “Not The Global Law Summit” to challenge the government’s business fest celebrations. A relay for rights marched the 43 miles from Runnymede to the official summit to deliver Magna Carta to them, with actor Maxine Peake reading out: “To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.” During the relay march we witnessed the splendid sight of the hideous Grayling puppet being ejected by the landlord of The Swan pub in Rotherhithe.

It is now time for legal aid lawyers to stand with junior doctors to make Jeremy Hunt suffer the same fate, as theirs too is a fight for us all.

Matt Foot
London