Legal Aid Cuts – Research & Development

Imagine a world in which access to justice was only available to a select few, in which everyone else would have to make do with a substandard and under-resourced legal system and in which life-changing decisions were more influenced by an individual’s bank balance than by the truth. Slowly but surely that dystopian world is beginning to become a reality as the government’s cuts to legal aid have started to erode the very nature of justice in this country.

Criminal barristers and solicitors are currently on strike – although their action is not officially allowed to be called a strike – as a protest at the proposed further cuts to the legal system. It is an issue which is not gathering as much attention as it warrants and as a result Freedom Studios in collaboration with Evie Manning is keen to raise awareness and challenge the government’s actions.

After weeks of research and a number of meetings between myself, Deborah Dickinson of Freedom Studios and Evie Manning of Commonwealth Theatre, we recently spent a week meeting people in the profession and working with actors Cain Connelly, Liz Simmons, James Lewis and Ellen McAuslan to work through a number of different scenarios.

The initial research led to a few specific areas which interested me from a moral and theatrical perspective:

Domestic Abuse – There have been very arbitrary restrictions placed on domestic abuse cases which have resulted in a large proportion of victims being refused legal aid. The nature of having to prove domestic abuse within the past two years highlights a lack of any understanding of the reality of such abuse and has already led to people being denied justice.

Disability – The draconian Work Capability Assessment, which was designed with the aim of taking people off benefits, has resulted in a huge number of people being passed fit to work who are in no position to. The most vulnerable are unable to obtain legal aid to challenge these decisions and people are being forced into poverty, homelessness and in some cases, even death.

Lawyers – The law is integral to a civilised and just society and right from the outset, Evie and I were keen to examine the effect the cuts are having on the legal profession and those who practise it.

During the first couple of days, characters from each of these strands began to come to life and there were a number of improvisations, triggered by some of the researched scenarios and the brilliant directing of Evie, which created some powerful drama. As the week progressed however, and after an illuminating discussion with Saj Chaudhury, of Chaudhury Solicitors in Bradford, we began to realise that the current erosion of justice is only the beginning.   Further cuts are proposed to legal aid, and the ideology behind them is worrying, presenting a grave future where the ‘right to a fair trial’ no longer exists.

We finished the week with an outline of a structure we will use to bring some of these human stories to life, to raise awareness of the issue and to help provoke change. It is an issue which the more we delved into, the more shocked we became at how little any of us knew and how little we heard about it in the media.

It appears as if the government’s PR machine, and the majority of the mainstream press, are happy to put the blame on ‘fat cat’ lawyers.  This narrative is deliberately misinforming the public. Unlike education or the NHS, access to justice is not something many of us imagine ourselves ever needing which allows these changes to happen without the resistance that there is to protect other frontline services. A fair justice system is of paramount importance to a fair society. Little by little, however, that justice system is being stripped back and justice as we know it may become a thing of the past. The process of methodically and systematically restricting access to justice is beginning and it won’t stop unless people take action against it. The solicitors and barristers are doing their bit. We plan to do ours also.

Chris O’Connor is a Street Voices 5 graduate from Freedom Studios.

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