Legal aid 'a pillar of the welfare state'

Unite delegate and solicitor Niamh O’Brady speaks out in defence of legal aid and protest and workplace rights

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Unite delegate and solicitor Niamh O’Brady gave an impassioned speech in a debate on safe and secure communities at Labour party conference on Tuesday (September 27).

Niamh highlighted that the legal aid system, which she said is in essence “the right to publicly funded legal representation and advice” has long been a “pillar of the welfare state”.

“But like our benefits system it has been systematically underfunded – and in several areas withdrawn by the Tories,” she said. “And at the same time our rights are being eroded such as the criminalisation of the peaceful right to protest; limitation of the freedom of association; and a weakening of employment rights.”

Slamming “fire and rehire” as a “disgrace” which undermined health and safety protections at work, Niamh said that only “more of the same [will be] promised by the ‘new’, 12-year-old Tory government”.

Niamh highlighted the challenges facing lawyers in a climate where they are “demonised for doing the job of upholding the law, such as challenging deportation of migrants to Rwanda, or the awarding of contracts without proper procurement processes”.

“Unite the Union has many members working in the justice system, in advice centres, solicitors and barristers, whose earnings are under attack as in several areas fees are not recoverable from the wrongdoers, or at sustainable rates,” she explained.

Niamh said that since April last year, criminal barristers have been forced to take unprecedented strike action in a fight with the government over fair pay.

“In real terms, they have had a 28 per cent pay cut since 2006, with junior barristers earning an average of £12,200 per year after five years of studying and training,” she noted.

Niamh called on a future Labour government to take action to reinstate rights that have been removed under the Tory government.

“It must provide legal aid to allow rights to be enforced — without which they are worthless — and ensure those working in the system can earn a fair salary,” she added.

Urging conference to support striking barristers, Niamh concluded, “Please advise your family and your friends to join a union because we will protect you and we will represent you.”

By Hajera Blagg

Pic by Mark Thomas

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