Cuts to legal aid are an attack on working class, says ’80s miners’ lawyer

Government legal reforms will deny poorest in society justice, says leading UK lawyer

A leading civil-rights lawyer who helped striking miners successfully fight false accusations from police during the infamous “Battle of Orgreave” has said it would now be much harder for them to achieve justice under the Government’s legal aid reforms.

Raju Bhatt, who has specialised in cases involving abuse of power or neglect of duty for more than two decades and was named legal aid lawyer of the year last month, told The Independent that the changes to legal aid could cause an “exponential rise in costs” for the Government – and deny the poorest in society access to justice.

One of Mr Bhatt’s first actions against the police was winning £425,000 damages from South Yorkshire police for assault, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution on behalf of 39 miners during the 1984-85 miner’s strike.

But under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (Laspo), Mr Bhatt warns that it will now become far more difficult for those without money to get justice.

“Some of the first work that I had the privilege of doing was the miners’ strike and their attempts to bring Yorkshire police to account,” he said. “Now, criminal defence practitioners have faced the brunt of the devastation that has been wrought in the name of legal aid cutbacks, and so the opportunity to bring the police to account through the civil courts might not have been open to them at all.”

Although the Government has backed down on plans to deny defendants the right to choose their own solicitor in criminal cases, it still aims to slash £220m a year from the legal aid budget. The cuts mean entire areas of civil law will no longer be eligible for legal aid, including divorces, immigration where the person is not detained, some employment and education law, personal injury and negligence, and debt, housing and benefit issues.

Victims of domestic violence must now show medical evidence before they can get legal aid in family cases.

Just as the brutal response to the miners’ strike was seen by critics as an attempt by the Thatcher government to destroy the working-class power base, Mr Bhatt thinks the cuts to legal aid are an attempt by this Government to do the same.

“This Government is about class and it doesn’t like that to be exposed, it doesn’t like to be brought to account. But it is going to be one way or the other,” he said.

Many legal figures have warned that people who no longer qualify for legal aid will start to represent themselves in court instead – jamming up the system as cases take longer to resolve.

The President of the Supreme Court, Lord Neuberger, is among those to say the lack of access to justice could mean people taking the law into their own hands. 

This, Mr Bhatt says, means the Government’s approach will save less money than it expects. “It is quite clear that by denying legal aid to ordinary people and therefore appearing to save money, there are hugely increasing costs within government departments who have to defend litigation brought by litigants in person,” he said.

“It’s those who are vulnerable who need us and it is going to be those who don’t have the resources to access justice without the help, without the support of public funding. I think we’re going to see the exponential rise of costs over the years to come if the Government carries on with this short-sighted trajectory.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “At £2bn a year we have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world and must ensure we get best value for every penny of taxpayers’ money spent. Our proposals will maintain a legal aid system that protects the most vulnerable, and is sustainable and affordable for future generations.

“We have just finished consulting on a number of proposals and are now carefully examining all the responses.”

Bhatt’s career: Fighting injustice

Miners’ strike

Won £425,000 damages from South Yorkshire police in a civil case for assault, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution on behalf of 39 miners at Orgreave.

Deaths in custody

Obtained unlawful killing verdicts in the deaths of four young black men who had been restrained in custody: Roger Sylvester, Alton Manning, Ibrahima Sey and Shiji Lapite.

Hillsborough

Member of Hillsborough Independent Panel, which uncovered the truth about police actions in the 1989 disaster in which 96 football supporters died.

Daniel Morgan

Fought for a an independent inquiry into the role of police corruption in shielding the killers of Daniel Morgan, a private investigator who was murdered in 1987 as he was allegedly about to reveal links between drug dealing and Met officers.

Blair Peach

Represented Celia Stubbs, the widow of Blair Peach, a protester killed at a demonstration in 1979 by a police officer with an unauthorised weapon.

Victoria Climbié

Acted as solicitor for Francis and Berthe Climbié, whose daughter Victoria was tortured to death by her great-aunt and her great-aunt’s boyfriend. Represented them when they took legal action against the Metropolitan Police, three councils and two hospital trusts for  negligence over the murder.

Jonathan Paige

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee