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Speaking for those who have no voice

View profile for Steven Petty
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A very strong sense of the importance of fairness and justice for all initially attracted me to the law when I was very young.  I saw the law as the bedrock of a fair society – provided it applied to all equally.  The only way to ensure the law applied equally to all members of society irrespective of wealth or political power though, was to ensure that access to justice was not dependent on how rich or powerful you were.

In this country, the system of Legal Aid was designed to ensure that everyone had access to justice.  That system has been chronically underfunded over many years at the same time as the wider justice system has witnessed swingeing cuts.  Both victims of crime and the accused (including, of course, those who are entirely innocent) are now having to wait years for justice.  The delays also have the added problem of witness evidence being much less reliable years after the events being recalled.

This week, the lack of funding for barristers working in the criminal justice system culminated in the start of strike action by the profession.  The current Government (which seems hell bent on undermining the primacy of the rule of law at every turn) once again sought to characterise the legal profession as the villains of the piece.  The reality, though, is that many young barristers are doing incredibly important work for less than the minimum wage.  Inevitably, the result is that many of those junior barristers are leaving the profession.  A quarter of criminal barristers have left in the last five years including almost forty percent of the most junior in just one year.

There are, of course, many calls on the public purse and always difficult decisions to be made but turning the criminal justice system into one where neither victims nor those who cannot afford to privately pay for representation can receive justice seems to me to strike at the very heart of a fair and democratic society.

The question this raised in my mind is why should any Government pay such scant regard to such a fundamental feature of a properly functioning democracy?  The same sense of justice and the belief that those who have a voice should speak for those that do not, caused me to consider politics as a potential career.  Surely all MPs are similarly motivated?

The primary purpose of our elected representatives is to represent the needs and views of their constituents in Parliament.  Whilst there are undoubtedly some fabulous MPs who discharge this duty to the very best of their ability, there increasingly seems to be a growing minority happy to quietly ignore the voiceless whilst they sell their influence in Parliament to the highest bidder.  Linked to this is the increasing prevalence of MPs with second jobs.  The idea that representing your constituents is not a full-time job is ludicrous.  In England, each MP has just over 70,000 people of voting age to represent – a challenging undertaking even if that was the only work an MP had to do but there are of course many other calls on an MP’s time including taking part in debates; sitting on select committees; and scrutinising legislation.  Every MP should remember that the voiceless are the ones that need representation the most and those constituents should be at the forefront of their minds not relegated behind those paying them privately for their influence.

If we believe that the law should protect and serve us all then those of us with a voice have a duty to make our voices heard.  That is one reason why barristers have reluctantly taken the step of industrial action – they can see the system falling apart before their eyes.

My day job involves giving legal advice to business people with the ability to pay me for my advice.  I never want to be part of a legal system though that serves only those fortunate few.