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
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.
Member of Hillsborough Independent Panel, which uncovered the truth about police actions in the 1989 disaster in which 96 football supporters died.
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.
Represented Celia Stubbs, the widow of Blair Peach, a protester killed at a demonstration in 1979 by a police officer with an unauthorised weapon.
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.