Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Operation Crumbling Edifice - Why legal aid cuts imperil us all

London is in the midst of a huge emergency services training exercise defiantly codenamed Strong Tower complete with firemen wearing those terrifyingly outlandish Nuclear, Biological and Chemical suits.  With a modern twist the training even has its own hashtag #999exercise.  Apparently the training has been in the offing for months, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-33315691, and its occurrence in the immediate aftermath of the terrible massacre in Tunisia is completely coincidental.

There are obviously three purposes to such training exercises.  First it is essential that the emergency services and soldiers are ready for a city based attack and it is necessary that they be trained in a city for such a purpose.  Secondly such a public show of preparedness is intended to act as reassurance to us that the authorities are ready and properly equipped and lastly it is a deterrent to any ‘lone wolves’ and groups inclined to launch an attack.

The fact this training does not occur in the middle of the night when negligible disruption would be caused is the clearest possible indication that the latter two purposes are firmly in the government and planners’ minds.  To some extent this is a massive public relations exercise.

As a member of the public it is very hard to know whether one should be reassured or alarmed by such a show of strength.  We are by now all familiar with the terrorism threat levels on display at the entrance of most public buildings:

  • LOW means an attack is unlikely.
  • MODERATE means an attack is possible, but not likely
  • SUBSTANTIAL means an attack is a strong possibility
  • SEVERE means an attack is highly likely
  • CRITICAL means an attack is expected imminently 

By way of reminder the current threat level is Severe.  Since 2006, when the threat level was made public for the first time, the level has never been anything lower than Substantial.  Pause for a moment and reflect whether your anxiety or fear relating to the imminence of a terrorist attack has fluctuated in any way with the changes to the threat level since then.  What is the purpose of this grading and what is the purpose of making it public?  Ostensibly it is to encourage public vigilance but without the revelation of any of the intelligence or material upon which the security services base their assessment of the threat level.  In other words we are being told that a terrorist attack is potentially imminent but without being told why.

Engendering unfocussed and diffuse anxiety on the part of the populace is at best pointless and irresponsible.  At worst it produces a rationale for the government to trample yet more intrusively on our private lives.  We must be careful to subject any government led incursion into our civil liberties to the most careful scrutiny and testing.

That being said, as the great political philosopher Ronald Reagan observed, a government's first duty is to protect the people, not run their lives.  There can be no doubt that discharging this duty is an extremely onerous undertaking  that has become vastly more complicated since the turn of the millennium.  Equally it would be extreme folly to assert that the government should be obliged to make public all information and intelligence that falls into its hands.  Up to a point we have to trust that the government is fulfilling its first duty to us without demanding a right to call for evidence that it is doing so.

Where however evidence is not only called for but is central to the proper scrutiny of the conduct of the state in its protection of us is in criminal proceedings.  The people charged with ensuring that evidence comes to light and is properly considered are lawyers.  In the first instance it is the role of prosecutors to receive evidence from the police and other investigators in order to make charging decisions.  It is the equally important role of defence lawyers to call for evidence that rebuts the basis for charging decisions and to test such evidence as the prosecution relies upon in criminal proceedings.

If there are no lawyers or, just as dangerous a situation, such lawyers as there are can’t properly perform these essential tasks then evidence goes ungathered, unpresented and untested with miscarriages of justice the result.  We are in the midst of nothing less than a full blown legal aid crisis and the imminent action of many legal aid lawyers is about to precipitate a massive stress testing of the criminal justice system.  This exercise is no less important that Operation Strong Tower except in this case it would more aptly be named Operation Crumbling Edifice.

The next few weeks will be worth watching extremely closely because what legal aid lawyers are saying by their actions is that the criminal justice system is on the point of collapse.  Suppose for a moment that today’s training exercise was a real attack with suspects apprehended.  How is the government protecting us in circumstances where the criminal justice system is malfunctioning so badly that no safe convictions could be obtained?

The worst kind of police officer is that which believes that arrest of a suspect is the end of their responsibility in a case.  In reality everybody involved in the criminal justice process bears a responsibility for ensuring justice is done and the resolution of that process is a jury’s verdict not arrest in a street.  What legal aid lawyers up and down the country are saying is that they can no longer fulfil their roles in advancing the criminal justice process and the reason is that the government is failing us all in its first responsibility to us and that is our protection.

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