In early October, Tooks Chambers announced their dissolution.
Formed in 1984, and co- led by the colourful Michael Mansfield QC, Tooks Chambers had been a leading human rights set of barristers. Founded amidst the miners’ strike, much of the chambers’ early work focussed on the litigation arising from the strikes.
Following on from that, the last few decades has seen Tooks standing up for the rights of the under privileged and miscarriages of justices, with its barristers appearing in cases such as for the families of the Bloody Sunday victims, representing the Birmingham Six, Stephen Lawrence, representing Mohamed al Fayed during the inquest over Princess Diana’s death. Further cases involving Tooks Chambers have included the Hillsborough enquiry, the AKH judicial review, more recently, barristers have been involved in the leading family case of Re BS (Children), and the on-going litigation surrounding the shooting of Mark Duggan. Indeed, one of Tooks’ barristers, Maureen Obi-Ezekpazu was nominated for the 2013 Sydney Elland Goldsmith Bar Pro Bono Award.
With such a track record in human rights, and holding the state to account, the news of the dissolution is very regrettable.
In its statement announcing its closure, Tooks stated clearly that its dissolution is due solely to the heavily criticised Legal Aid, Sentencing & Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), in which legal aid was cut significantly:
“The dissolution of Chambers is the direct result of government policies on Legal Aid. The public service we provide is dependent on public funding. 90% of our work is publicly funded. The government policies led by Justice Secretary Chris Grayling are cumulatively devastating the provision of legal services and threatening the rule of law.”
Whatever the economics and benefits of such cuts, the legal profession and related fields remains fiercely critical of it (including this writer). Given the nature of human rights cases, most such cases were funded by legal aid. The withdrawal of funding meant that it was no longer financially viable for the Chambers to continue, as regrettable as that was.
For the barristers, pupils and clerks of Tooks, there is some hope. A second announcement a few days after the dissolution stated that Michael Mansfield was forming a new chambers. Mansfield Chambers chambers will be based quite close by, and will rely on sharing office space, the latest IT and office infrastructure to minimise costs and staffing. 15 of the former Tooks barristers and several clerks will be joining Mr Mansfield in the new chambers. As such, their work, and their defence of human rights, will carry on.
It was not just human rights cases that were affected by LASPO. Family law, immigration and civil cases were the hardest hit. Legal companies working in those areas are now suffering under an impossible financial strain and burden. Since the cuts came into force in April, many such companies have either gone bust, or have merged to survive.
Despite such advances to the legal industry such as ABS’s, LASPO takes the whole sector a step back. Tooks Chambers is the first high profile casualty of the legal aid cuts- but it is only the first of many. As the effect of the cuts becomes more evident, more legal businesses will close.
Although legally this will not be a breach of human rights under the terms of human rights legislation, such denial of justice to claimants as firms close their doors will end up in breaches and abuses of human rights going unchecked as claimants of all types, such as those seeking injury compensation, will be unable to get justice. That in itself could be considered morally to be a grave breach of human rights- especially in a democracy that has championed the rule and accessibility of law and justice for all for several centuries.