On 23 February campaigners gathered at Westminster to protest the hypocrisy of the government in commemorating 800 years since the sealing of the Magna Carta, while reforms to the justice system including swingeing spending cuts have systematically undermined access to justice.
The government organised commemoration of the Magna Carta, the Global Law Summit, takes place from 23-25 February and is a mainly corporate-focused event, funded by large city law firms. The summit is described on the event’s own website as a “unique one-off high level business forum”, bringing together a “mix of business leaders, public sector decision makers and government officials around the world.”
Protestors held an alternative event called ‘Not the Global Law Summit’, organised by the Justice Alliance, at Old Palace Yard, where supporters heard speakers from a range of organisations concerned with the impact of government reforms. The event was the culmination of a Relay for Rights march, which started at Runnymede on 21 February (where the Magna Carta was sealed in 1215), to Westminster on 23 February.
At the event, Chris Grayling, featured as an effigy in the style of medieval King John (the monarch who agreed to the Magna Carta), was placed on trial for several counts of obstructing justice, bringing the justice system into disrepute and undermining the rule of law.
Matt Foot, criminal defence solicitor and co-founder of the Justice Alliance, while speaking at the protest called the Global Law Summit a “sham”, and that “the only way to celebrate the anniversary of the Magna Carta is to get rid of Chris Grayling”.
Jonathan Black, president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association (LCCSA), followed Matt Foot, arguing that “our justice system is being flogged off at a glorified car boot sale”. Jonathan reminded the gathering that the cuts to legal aid affect everyday people, and that the government is creating a “legal aid desert”, where people who are charged face the prospect of waiting in a police stations for long periods, “where the nearest solicitor is miles away”.
A second speaker from the LCCSA noted that the 39th clause of Magna Carta states that “all freemen have the right to justice and a free trial. By dismantling legal aid Grayling is destroying the means by which the Magna Carta is given modern meaning”.
Andy Worthington, from the Save Shaker Aamer campaign, spoke of how Britain’s last citizen to remain in Guantanamo Bay – Shaker Aamer, has been held there for ten years. Andy mentioned that “Magna Carta contains the right not to be imprisoned without fair trial”, yet the failure of the British government to make effective representations seeking Shaker Aamer’s release, makes a mockery of the legacy of the Magna Carta.
Francis Fitzgibbon, QC at Doughty Street Chambers and part-time immigration judge, told the audience that “justice is a not a commodity to be bought and sold, it should be available to everyone”. Francis said that the “whole criminal justice system is being degraded in the name of commercial interests – prisons, courts, legal aid, probation. Victims of crime are having to wait years for justice”.
Francis quoted the Lord Chief Justice, who on the morning of 23 February in his address to the Global Law Summit, said that “obstructions to justice are a denial of justice as Magna Carta teaches”. In his address, the Lord Chief Justice continued to tell the summit that “effective funding for those with limited means where a legal help is needed…[is]…the price we must continue to pay for a just and open society”.
A written message from actress Emma Thompson was read out at the protest, in which she said “I support the Not the Global Law Summit because it represents the real meaning of the Magna Carta: open justice for all, equal access to courts and lawyers”.
Further speakers included Costas Douzinas, professor of law at Birkbeck, University of London, who argued that “austerity and democracy are incompatible”, that “Global capital has hijacked the idea of human rights”, and that “Law without justice is like a body without a soul”. Costas finished by saying “the only battle we cannot win is the only battle we do not join”.
The rally heard from Ian Lawrence, General Secretary of Napo, as well as Paul Nowak, Assistant General Secretary of the TUC. Ian talked about how probation services have been “decimated”, that following privatisation, now “21 private companies are expected to deliver the same standard of service with less resources”, and finished by noting that Napo’s campaign will continue beyond the general election.
Paul Nowak said that we need to “call out the hypocrisy of the government and the Global Law Summit”, but also see the protest as “a rallying call for everyone who believes in justice as a fundamental right”. Paul spoke of how “the attack on rights is being played out in workplaces up and down the country”, and that with new fees for employment tribunals “workers are being priced out of justice”. Paul noted that claims for employment tribunals in 2013-14 have fallen by 64 per cent, compared to the previous year.
Karl Turner, Labour MP and Shadow Solicitor General said that Chris Grayling’s “bull in a china shop approach to the justice system has given him the name ‘failing Grayling”. Karl accused the Global Law Summit as being “a politically motivated jamboree”, and that Chris Grayling “ought to be in a prison, not running them”.
Karl continued to note that Labour will “not implement two-tier legal contracts for legal aid”, referring to Chris Grayling’s plans to slash the number of on-call legal aid solicitors attending police stations and magistrates courts.
The rally ended with actress Maxine Peake, who said she was “honoured” to be at the event, reading out two famous sections of the Magna Carta – clauses 39 and 40, which refer to an individual’s right and access to justice:
“(39) No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.
(40) To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.”
Following the speakers the rally found Chris Grayling guilty of all of the charges he was accused of, and duly impeached. The event continued in a procession ending outside the Queen Elizabeth II Centre close to Parliament, the venue of the Global Law Summit.
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