Photos and Report: Celebrating Magna Carta and Habeas Corpus and Campaigning to Save Legal Aid at the Not the Global Law Summit in London

24.2.15

A puppet of Chris Grayling as King John at the Not the Global Law Summit opposite the Houses of Parliament on February 23, 2015 (Photo: Andy Worthington).

See my photo set on Flickr here!

Yesterday, I was delighted to be a speaker at the Not the Global Law Summit, held in Old Palace Yard, opposite the Houses of Parliament, and also to have an opportunity to take the photos you can see in my photo set here. The event was called as a protest against the Global Law Summit, a three-day event taking place in the nearby Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, where tickets are £1500 (or £1750 on the door), and 2,000 delegates are in attendance from 110 countries, including 90 government ministers (see the speaker list here). As I mentioned in the text accompanying my photos, the Global Law Summit purports to celebrate Magna Carta in the year of its 800th anniversary, but in fact celebrates the law as a facilitator for corporate greed and unaccountable power.

The Not the Global Law Summit was also part of an ongoing campaign by the organisers, the Justice Alliance, to resist savage cuts to legal aid proposed by the Tory-led coalition government, and primarily by its chief butcher of the legal world, Chris Grayling, the first Lord Chancellor who is not from a legal background.

The Not the Global Law Summit also took place after a three-day Relay for Rights, featuring a giant puppet of Chris Grayling as King John, in the stocks. The Relay involved a 42-mile walk from Runnymede, where Magna Carta was signed in 1215, whose most lasting outcome was the creation of habeas corpus — the right not to be arbitrarily imprisoned, and to have a fair trial — which has been exported around the world and is our greatest defence against executive overreach.

It was in this context, as the co-director of the We Stand With Shaker campaign, that I spoke at the protest, about the importance of habeas corpus, and how disgraceful it is that the government is celebrating Magna Carta while Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantánamo, remains imprisoned without charge or trial after 13 years, despite being approved for release by the US authorities in 2007 and 2009. As I pointed out in my speech, David Cameron should be profoundly ashamed of the Global Law Summit, while Shaker is still held.

Other speakers at Not the Global Law Summit included Matt Foot, who was one of the main organisers, and Labour MP Karl Turner, the shadow attorney general. Foot said, “That Summit over there is a sham; it’s a sick joke. The only way to celebrate the anniversary of Magna Carta is to get rid of Chris Grayling,” and Turner told the rally, as an article on the Justice Gap website by Mary-Rachel McCabe explained, that “Grayling’s ‘bull in a china shop approach’ had rightfully earned him the title ‘Failing Grayling.’ The current Tory-led government is ‘beyond satire’, added the Labour MP for Hull. ‘Grayling’s incompetence is not because he doesn’t have a law degree; he is just incompetent. He has been held unlawful so many times, he ought to be in a prison rather than running the prison system.’”

McCabe added:

Prominent criminal defence barrister Francis Fitzgibbon QC accused Grayling of ‘breathtaking hypocrisy and stupidity’ and called on both limbs of the legal profession ‘to unite to fight for human rights, against the cuts to judicial review and above all the destruction of legal aid.’ Justice is ‘not a commodity that can be bought and sold to the highest bidder,’ said Fitzgibbon. ‘That we even have to be here protesting shows how extreme, subversive and insolent the people in charge have become.’

Professor Costas Douzinas, of Birkbeck College, was equally scathing in his critique of the government’s Magna Carta celebrations: ‘The Global Law Summit demonstrates that global capital has hijacked human rights,’ he said. ‘It demonstrates that global law is for capital, not for humans.’ The professor added that ‘Law without justice is like a body without a soul. It is a dead letter. It does not inspire obedience.’ Encouraging the rally not to give up the fight to save the justice system, he said: ‘The only battle we cannot win is the battle we do not join.’

The campaign also has celebrity support. Stephen Fry, Jo Brand and Tamsin Greig are featured in a video, Emma Thompson sent a letter of support that was read out at the summit, and Maxine Peake, the star of ‘Silk,’ took part in the protest, telling telling the rally that she was “honoured to be here to help you continue to stick it to that lot over there,” as she pointed towards the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre.

As the organisers note, legal aid in England and Wales was established in 1949, and “provides assistance to people who would otherwise not be able to afford legal representation or access to the court system.” However, in 2013, new legislation was introduced, which was aimed at “cutting the civil legal aid budget by a quarter (£320m) within a year,” removing legal aid “from most welfare benefits, housing and immigration (non-asylum) cases, as well as the majority of divorce and child contact cases.” In addition, the government “has also brought about drastic cuts to criminal cases, with the aim of slashing the criminal legal aid budget by a further £220million a year,” and criminal solicitors’ fees “have been cut by 8.75%, and are due to be cut again.”

One knock-on effect, which is not being reported by the mainstream media, is that some trials are unable to take place because there is no money for defence lawyers, meaning that some potential criminals are walking free — something that, if it were not the Tories doing it, would have the right-wing press in an uproar.

Grayling is also attacking judicial review, “the mechanism by which actions of the Government and Government bodies can be challenged in the courts,” as the organisers of Not the Global Law Summit describe it, noting also that, in a Daily Mail article in September 2013, he described judicial review as ‘a promotional tool for Left-Wing campaigners,’” and, as a result, he “is now trying to push through changes that will seriously restrict ordinary people’s access to judicial review.”

The government is also, of course, threatening to abolish the Human Rights Act, which will involve leaving the Council of Europe (and probably the EU) and withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights, which British Conservatives played a key role in developing after the Second World War, and the Tories are also dedicated to shielding themselves, the intelligence services and corporate interests from accountability for wrongdoing through increased secrecy, expanding the secret court system that, since 9/11, has been another nail in the coffin of British justice.

Just as Shaker Aamer is deprived  of his rights at Guantánamo, so terror suspects in the UK — both foreigners and British nationals — have been imprisoned without charge or trial in the UK, or held under a form of house arrest, on the basis of secret evidence, something that stands in absolute opposition to the principles of open justice on which our legal system is founded.

Moreover, in its latest counter-terrorist hysteria, the government is pushing ahead with extrajudicial citizenship-stripping measures (which I first wrote about last year here, here and here) that are also an affront to the central significance of habeas corpus to any country that regards itself as civilised.

In the year that marks the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, I look forward to many more opportunities to highlight the need for habeas corpus to be celebrated and protected, as well as further opportunities to resist the government’s savage cuts.

A link to the photos is also below:

The stage at the Not the Global Law Summit outside Parliament, February 23, 2015

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, the director of “We Stand With Shaker,” calling for the immediate release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

2 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Jan Strain wrote:

    Magna Carta – America’s government doesn’t recognize no limey librul Magna Carta… (of course I am being snarky but with recent events in the US, that wonderful document and all the beautiful thought seems to be ignored here)

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Well, yes, Jan​, habeas corpus – for foreigners – went AWOL after 9/11 and only resurfaced for a few years (2008-10) after Boumediene v Bush, until the D.C. Circuit Court killed it again. A very sad story: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2011/11/29/as-judges-kill-off-habeas-corpus-for-the-guantanamo-prisoners-will-the-supreme-court-act/

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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