Roadblocked for justice
‘I fled an abusive relationship and was not sure what to do to protect myself. Because of the changes to legal aid I could not afford to get a court order to protect myself from my ex-partner. I feel sad that the government does not want to help to protect me, and women like me, from violence. Why can’t the government make companies, like Google, pay their fair share instead of punishing people like me?’ Lynn Jacobs, a UK uncut supporter.
Activists participating in civil disobedience blocked main roads in central London and six other town centres around the country on Saturday. Around 500 people took part in a UK Uncut organized action called Roadblocks for Justice to protest against the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Coalition’s proposed cuts to legal aid designed to save $9.5 million from a $3 billion a year bill.
These proposals have already led to cuts in access to representation for the poorest groups in society on issues such as welfare benefits, employment and debt. In April 2013, further reforms were announced that will affect legal aid offered to vulnerable groups such as asylum seekers and victims of trafficking. As well as being unfair, the cuts are also illogical; the modest saving will actually result in an increase in spending of $47.6 million in knock-on costs, according to legal experts. (See The human cost of cheap justice.)
‘Since the changes in legal aid were announced, there has been fight-back from judges and solicitors and we thought it was time for UK Uncut to get involved,’ says Rosie Rogers, a member of UK Uncut Legal Action.
‘Lady Justices’ and banner-holding activists marched, wheeled, sambaed and cycled from London’s Old Bailey to the Royal Courts of Justice. Roadblocks were also held in Manchester, Liverpool, Cambridge, Hull, Northampton and Norwich. In London, a street theatre trial put Justice Secretary Chris Grayling in the dock for ‘perverting the course of justice’ with a DPAC (Disabled People against Cuts) activist giving evidence against him.
Other direct action groups taking part included Plane Stupid, Fuel Poverty Action and Black Activists Rising Against The Cuts (BARAC) as well as members from trade union Unite.
Police were overheard saying that they would be ‘starting arrests soon’ but the Strand in London was blocked for an hour and a half before the police moved in and the action ended peacefully. Police had warned that the group would be preventing emergency services from moving around the capital but organizers said that the disruption was a proportionate response to the government’s plans to block access to the courts for millions of people.
Jack Genel, UK Uncut supporter explained: ‘We know that we are causing inconvenience, but we are following in the footsteps of many, including the Suffragettes and civil rights groups, in creative civil disobedience to challenge the government’s plans that will mean that only the rich can afford legal representation and advice.’
The government’s reforms have come under increasing criticism, with England’s most senior family judge recently describing them as ‘disconcerting’ and suggesting that ‘something needs to be done’. In July, the government was forced to backtrack on a key part of the reforms – removing the right of legal aid defendants to choose their solicitor – following protests.
‘The government is making ordinary people pay the price for the economic crisis by stopping ordinary people accessing free legal advice and representation. Legal aid helps people to keep their homes when the authorities are trying to evict them because of the bedroom tax, or to sue the government over wrongful arrest or kettling. [It helps] disabled people access the services they need.’ says Anna Davidson, UK Uncut spokesperson.
The legal aid cuts symbolize the disconnect between what is ‘legal’ in Britain and what is ‘illegal’. From the perspective of the State, it is illegal to block the right of way on a public highway demanding justice yet it is legal to silence protest by arresting activists, monitoring social media and infiltrating activist circles. It is legal to increase inequality and injustice in Britain by pricing citizens out of legal representation. It is legal for cuts to continuously and disproportionately affect poor and vulnerable groups.
The question is: ‘how much more are we prepared to put up with?’ This goes beyond legal aid, or saving the NHS, or the dignity of people with disabilities. Rejecting the government’s bullying, repressive policies is about democracy: the right of every person in Britain to participate in society on a just and equal footing.