Editorial: Not so fast, Ms Cherry!

Editorial: Not so fast, Ms Cherry!

Graham Ogilvy

The surfeit of ‘awards’ ceremonies has devalued many of the honours bestowed on recipients and we can all feel a tad award-weary from time to time.

But when The Herald declared Ms Joanna Cherry QC ‘Best Scot at Westminster’, few would have demurred. Last year began with her skewering the government over its bungled Seaborne Freight contract awarded to a ghost company. Her dogged tenacity and incisive questioning were on display in Westminster throughout the year – culminating in her triumph at the Supreme Court as one of those who opposed the unlawful prorogation of Parliament.

There is little doubt that as the Conservatives move to attack the Human Rights Act and effect changes to the unwritten British constitution to remove checks and balances that they find inconvenient, Ms Cherry, the SNP’s justice spokesperson in Westminster, will be to the fore in opposing what the former Supreme Court justice Lord Sumption has warned of as the “hollowing out of democracy”. Her efforts will be the all more appreciated given the seeming absence of an effective opposition in England with Labour paralysed by interminable infighting and the Liberal Democrats reeling with shell-shock from the thumping they received at the hands of English nationalism.

It is somewhat disappointing then, that we have to introduce a sour note to proceedings. At the end of the year, in response to Lady Hale’s warning that the withdrawal of legal aid threatened access to justice, Ms Cherry was quick, too quick, to tweet that, “this is an English and Welsh problem. Legal aid is still widely available in Scotland”.

It was an act of staggering insouciance.

Is Ms Cherry unaware that among her constituents are members of the Edinburgh Bar Association which has repeatedly warned of the unviability of legal aid work paid at the current rates? Last year’s paltry three per cent rise has done nothing to stem the trend of lawyers declining to take on legal aid work for rates which have little changed in 30 years.

Did nobody tell her that the Law Society of Scotland has warned of ‘deserts’ for legal aid appearing, with large swathes of the country having no access to justice as small firms in market towns wither on the vine? The very thing that Lady Hale was concerned about.

Is she oblivious to the situation at the junior criminal bar in the Faculty of Advocates which, despite a gravity-defying increase in numbers, is in decline?

The truth is that no party in Scotland has a record to be proud of when it comes to legal aid. At the 25th anniversary celebrations of Govan Law Centre, Mike Dailly rightly made a plea for more resources for more law centres in Scotland. It is a call that SLN entirely endorses. But without diminishing the ground-breaking work of GLC and other law centres in any way, we have to ask: is it really good enough for access to justice in Scotland to be afforded by the jurisprudential equivalent of food-banks?

We can be proud of our Scottish legal system and we can be proud of Scotland’s lawyers – as Ms Cherry so ably demonstrated by her actions in Westminster.

But we have, as a society, to be prepared to pay for a system that should be the hallmark of any civilized democracy. And Scottish governments should not be ‘feart’ of headlines about legal aid costs in the declining tabloid press. Otherwise, to ‘tartanise’ Sir James Matthew’s famous quip, justice in Scotland will be open to all – just like Gleneagles Hotel.

Graham Ogilvy

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