Exclusive: Jeremy Corbyn urges young lawyers to fight on for legal aid ~ John van der Luit-Drummond, Solicitors Journal, LEGAL NEWS | 4 November 2015.
Labour leader says the battle for access to justice must begin ‘strongly’ as he aims to restore legal aid in the next parliament.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has urged young lawyers to ‘stick it out’ in legal aid rather than retrain in another area of law or leave the profession altogether.
Speaking at the legal aid forum, the Labour leader said he often gets law students asking him for work experience who want to specialise in family, criminal, or immigration law.
‘How are you going to do that, I ask. And they reply, “Well it’s a real problem”,’ said Corbyn. ‘They know the problems of funding it. Most of them end up saying they will do commercial law. That means we have fewer qualified people doing things. And the number of solicitors firms that close because of legal aid cuts means there are whole swathes of the country without any legal aid work.’
Speaking exclusively to Solicitors Journal following a barnstorming address to the gathering of legal professionals, the leader of the opposition said the government’s reforms to the justice system meant firms were pulling out of legal aid to concentrate on more lucrative practice areas, to the detriment of young practitioners.
‘At the moment a lot of lawyers feel they can’t be dealing with legal aid, they have to find something else to do, hence the number of firms that don’t want to get involved in legal aid or just do commercial law because that is the only way they can make a living. It is not good for anyone. We need a proper legal system,’ said Corbyn.
‘It is a deterrent for young people going into law in the future, so we end up with young lawyers not being able to work,’ he continued. ‘If you can, stick at it. Try and stay there because people need good lawyers. They need that representation. I want to see the restoration of legal aid in the new parliament and hopefully we will have a Labour majority to bring it about.’
Corbyn told SJ he agreed with members of his shadow justice team that the Labour party under Ed Miliband’s leadership had not given legal aid the attention it deserved in the last general election.
‘It wasn’t given enough prominence either by us or in the general debates at the election itself,’ he admitted. ‘I want to see a rights-based society and the right to justice is crucial, therefore the right to legal aid is absolutely essential.’
The Labour party leader said the government’s £350m worth of cuts to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) budget had clearly meant many people were not getting justice, and in many cases were going unrepresented in court.
‘There are many cases of desperate people relying on inadequate McKenzie friends,’ said Corbyn. ‘I wouldn’t take away the right to McKenzie friends but that is not an alternative.’
The left-wing firebrand has had a somewhat fractious relationship with the unregulated advisers ever since he told members of the Legal Services Consumer Panel (LSCP) that McKenzie friends were ‘helping the destruction of universal access to justice and destroying careers’.
Following his time on the justice select committee, Corbyn is attuned to the issues affecting access to justice, or as Lord Willy Bach remarked: ‘Now Labour has a leader that gets legal aid in a big way.’
The MP for Islington North told SJ of the kinds of legal issues facing residents in his constituency.
‘Family cases quite often,’ he said. ‘Family break up is always painful, and children’s custody issues are particularly painful. Sometimes you get one party with access to legal aid and the other not. They both feel the pain of a break up and they should both be adequately legally represented.’
Corbyn added that he hears of immigration cases where an individual falls below the threshold of obtaining legal aid because they are no longer threatened with deportation by the Home Office, but nevertheless they ‘remain in an unsecure situation’.
‘I also get a number of criminal cases that, quite frankly, should get legal aid but don’t. And I also get the situation where people are not particularly well off, but because they have a property they are deemed wealthy enough not to qualify for legal aid.’
The Labour leader told SJ that the MoJ had been put under pressure following a number of enquiries made by the previous justice committee into its activities. He went on to encourage the current committee to revisit the effects of the legal aid reforms.
Corbyn admitted that he and the shadow chancellor, another former member of the justice committee, had yet to decide on budgets for the justice system should they win the next general election.
‘We have not got into that level of detail yet,’ he explained. ‘When Willy brings us his report we will then do the costings at that stage. But you’ve got the general mood music from John McDonnell and myself that legal aid is essential in a fair and democratic society.’
Questioned about the Lord Chancellor’s proposals to impose a levy on City firms to cover the cost of pro bono initiatives, Corbyn said charity was not the solution.
‘Society cannot survive on charity, goodwill, and food banks. It has to rely on the basis of a welfare state that ensures that no one falls into destitution, and a legal system that ensures no one goes unrepresented in the courts.’
The leader of the opposition concluded by telling SJ that the fight to save legal aid was just beginning and that it ‘has got to begin strongly’.