I wanted to say something about Magna Carta. Eight hundred years ago, on 15th June 1215, King John agreed to, and signed this landmark document, that began to codify laws and legal issues for the very first time in UK history. The start of English Law, some might say.
Quite incredibly, in my opinion, there will be constitutional festivities being held from 23rd-25th February to celebrate Magna Carta, in some way to champion how great the Rule of Law is in Britain today. This summit is supposedly “A unique collaboration between the UK Government, the Legal sector and the City of London.” The focus being: how great is our interaction between the law and business here in the UK.
I don’t doubt that this is true and wonderful for the Commercial Law Sector, but at whatcost to the Criminal and Civilian sectors? David Cameron’s Conservative Government is intent on dismantling access to justice for the needy, the poor, the destitute and for all prisoners, who without the financial riches to pay for legal assistance, either teach themselves law, or live without much legal protection. A situation the UK should be ashamed of, the State effectively thumbing its nose at Magna Carta and a universal, all-encompassing system that protects everyone both rich and poor from exploitation by others.
As if that appalling situation is not bad enough, the Government is hell bent on watering down protection for people’s basic human rights as well. I have written recently about the Conservative Parties proposal to repeal the Human Rights Act, if that is, they are re-elected in May this year. Cameron and Co want to remove the mechanism for enforcing our basic Human Rights, the very thing that prevents the abuse of the vulnerable by the powerful.
However, we don’t have to wait for the Conservatives to be re-elected for this sorry state of affairs to be enacted, it is in operation right now. The Government took away Legal Aid funding for so many legal cases by recently slashing the Legal Aid budget by tens of millions of pounds.
An example of this policy and its effect upon a vulnerable group of people is that prisoners can no longer obtain funding to enforce prison rules. The lives of all prisoners currently in UK prisons, almost ninety thousand of us, are controlled by rules called Prison Service Instructions (PSI’s) and Prison Service Orders (PSO’s). These are the laws that control every aspect of how staff can interact with prisoners within the prison system. Now that Legal Aid funding has been removed for enforcing PSI’s and PSO’s, all prisoners are vulnerable should any staff member fail to act within the constraints of the PSI’s and PSO’s in place to protect them.
Similarly, prisoners Human Rights cannot be protected when there is no funding for a lawyer to mount a Court case to ask for that legal protection, and prisoners are not alone in this. The poor are also finding it harder and harder to make use of the UK’s legal system to seek protection when their Human Rights are being abused. This means that vulnerable witnesses can face the accused questioning them in the witness box because many defendants are not entitled to Legal Aid and face defending themselves in court.
The spirit of Magna Carta can hardly be celebrated eight hundred years on, when the universal protection of all UK Citizens in the eyes of the law, is being undermined by a Government determined to introduce policies that place many millions of it’s citizens open to exploitation by gang masters, bullies, abusers, the mean and anyone else with the will and power to do so, and that is wrong on every level.
The sorry state of the UK’s Criminal and Civil Law Sectors that should protect these citizens makes this ‘Global Law Summit’, in celebration of Magna Carta an insult to what Magna Carta should now stand for. Accordingly, I’m in total agreement with Shami Chakrabarti, the Director of Liberty, who told the Guardian:
“This event has been promoted by a Government which had decimated access to justice. As a Human Rights Campaigner, my place is with the protesters.”
I’m also in agreement with the protesters, access to justice must be for everyone, just as Human Rights protection must be for everyone. As we celebrate eight hundred years since the signing of Magna Carta, at Runnymede, on the banks of the Thames, we should consider how we’ve allowed David Cameron and his Government to make legal protection available only to those who can afford it. That to me isn’t in the spirit of Magna Carta. Surely, the law must be accessible to everyone.