"I have long argued that the giving of offence, and even hate speech, should be a moral matter but not a matter for the criminal law. That is as true on the football pitch as on the streets. We should always challenge racism. We should also always challenge attacks on liberties in the guise of faux antiracism." Kenan Malik


If David Cameron gets his way on the government’s proposed Sentencing and Legal Aid bill it could have serious repercussions for political activists, radicals and especially those arrested on demonstrations and protests. Under new proposals put forward in his legal reform bill the right to legal representation will cease to be automatic for all those arrested and held in custody by police.

Currently anyone who is arrested is entitled to free legal advice from a solicitor paid for through the legal aid process which comes out of the government spending budget. In attempt to save £350m Cameron wants to introduce a means test for those arrested. This has been slipped in the bill under ‘clause 12′ which states only those who pass the test will be entitled to free legal assistance.

The bill states that a Director of Legal Aid Case Work, a civil servant designated by the Lord Chancellor, will be appointed to determine whether the arrested person qualifies for legal advice or assistance and will make that determination on financial considerations and tellingly “in the interests of justice”. It is not clear how this will play out when, for example, we have already seen it is in the interests of justice to arrest and charge 145 peaceful demonstrators at Fortnum and Mason. What is clear is that an arrested person will only get advice in the police station if the Government decides in the individual case that it is in the interests of justice for you to do so. If you are arrested for protesting against the government this makes the law a very fragile tool indeed.

In real terms it looks likely the police will once again hold all the cards during an arrested person’s time in custody. Once it was the police who had the power to charge people with a criminal offence – this was taken away from them and handed directly to the Crown Prosecution Service as the police were incapable of charging people correctly and without prejudice, especially relating to public order offences or offences against the police. With the inclusion of clause 12 it guarantees the ‘interests of justice’ will no longer be independent and universal but in the hands of the very people whose interests are best served in charging you. In assessing a person’s right to justice the director will be guided by the police’s interpretation of the facts.

It is a shoddy piece of legislation open to all manner of interpretation and abuse if implemented. It also shows the absolute contempt rich right-wing politicians have for the universal rights of ordinary people. If ‘clause 12′ does get passed into law it will have far reaching consequences on the nature of political policing and opens up the way for even greater miscarriages of justice.


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