In April 2007 I attended a meeting with a group of lawyers from Hackney and the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State responsible for Legal Aid, Vera Baird MP. These lawyers had been practising legal aid law for many years, and had a vast experience of helping the people of Hackney to access justice. They wanted to meet with Vera Baird to discuss the legal aid reforms the government has proposed. During this meeting I realised the seriousness of the proposals and how these would devastate local businesses in places like Hackney, and have a devastating effect on the ability of Hackney residents to access legal services. The reforms effectively represent a cut in the amount of money that is paid for each individual legal aid case. This prompted me to start a campaign against the legal aid reforms. An Early Day Motion I put forward calling on Ministers to rethink their proposals received a huge support from MPs.
The reforms are a bad idea for a number of reasons. They are aimed at value for money, but in reality mean that many smaller firms will be run out of business by factory-like law firms that can afford to take on legal aid cases for less money. Black and ethnic minority-run firms are more likely to be new or small firms, and are more likely to be dependent on legal aid work and therefore are hugely threatened by the reforms. Whilst I welcome the Government's wish to get value for money in legal aid spending, it is clear that among other flaws the legal aid reform will decimate black and minority ethnic solicitors.
Many black and ethnic minority legal firms were set up as a reaction to the institutional racism that prevented ethnic minority lawyers from progressing in their careers. These firms are now hugely successful in representing ethnic minority communities and giving culturally sensitive advice and help to vulnerable members of society. Their work is therefore vital in providing access to justice. Many people from black and ethnic minority communities only feel that they can trust these firms to represent them in a fair way. Furthermore, these firms have a history of helping out in the most difficult and time-consuming of cases such as those involving interpreters.
In May 2009 I tabled a number of written questions to the Ministry of Justice to try and gage what could be done to halt the reforms. Following this I held a Westminster Hall debate arguing that the reforms were indirectly discriminatory against black and ethnic minority solicitors, firms and clients. I was pleased that there were a number of prominent MPs from across the Parties who joined in this debate, and all of whom agreed that the reforms should not go ahead as they stand.
Following the debate I had meetings with Lord Carter, upon whose report the reforms were made, Ministers concerned or interested in the issue and representatives from the Law Society. I wanted to make sure that the matter was kept in the minds of parliamentarians, and that as many people as possible were aware of the effects the reforms were to have.
Meanwhile, the Society and Asian Lawyers and the Black Solicitors' Network launched legal action against the Ministry and Justice on the basis that the reforms did not comply with anti-discrimination law. In July 2009 the case was heard and the government agreed to carry out full and cumulative race assessment exercises on the effects of the reforms. This progress means that it will be possible to prove how the reforms will affect black and ethnic minority firms, solicitors and clients. This may well give much more concrete substantiation to the argument against the reforms.