THE BLOG

Legal Aid Cuts: 'If Stephen Lawrence's Mother Walked Through My Door Tomorrow, I Would Have To Turn Her Away'

17/07/2015 08:05 BST | Updated 16/07/2016 10:59 BST

Last week, a new play by the Oscar-winning writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz about the impact of legal aid cuts on those who need it the most - The Invisible - opened at the Bush Theatre in London.

Even before the cuts introduced by the Legal Aid and Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO for short), legal aid didn't cover everything. There were still significant gaps in the scheme, which meant you couldn't get funding for some types of case, no matter how important. The Lawrence case - which turned out to be one of the most significant of my career - is one such case where there was no legal aid funding available.

The difference between now and 1993 is that back then there was enough financial slack in the system to allow firms like mine to take on these free cases and still survive financially. Legal aid lawyers were never fat cats (despite what you may have heard), but we could turn just enough of a profit on work that was funded by legal aid to take a chance on cases like Lawrence, to see where they led. Even though the case wasn't legally aided, it is thanks to the legal aid system that revelations about police racism, corruption and undercover activities ever saw the light of day.

That has now changed, however. Successive governments have chiseled away at legal aid fees over many years - and there is more to come. We have just endured a second 8.75 per cent cut in fees for criminal defence work in just over a year. We are already cut to the bone.

Some firms will go to the wall. Others will move away from legal aid towards better paid, privately funded cases - which means turning our backs on the poor and disadvantaged, who are exactly the kinds of people many of us came into the profession to help. We can no longer take on cases where there has been an obvious injustice, but that will take many, many hours to investigate, with no guarantee of any kind of result. Everyone now talks as if the failures by the police around Stephen's death were so blatant, and the rightness of the Lawrence family's cause so obvious, that it was inevitable something would have to be done.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

We fought and fought to get anyone's attention. It was only because of the combination of just enough profit in my small firm to allow me to devote time to it unpaid, and Mrs (now Baroness) Lawrence's absolute doggedness and determination to do right by her son, that anyone has heard of Stephen Lawrence.

If the Lawrence case happened today, and Mrs Lawrence walked through my door tomorrow, I would have no choice but to turn her away. Her courage and steadfastness may not have changed, but legal aid has.

The Invisible is at the Bush Theatre, London until 15 August

With thanks to the Legal Action Group