Peter Nicholls for The Times
Senior lawyers have defended the decision to grant legal aid to one of the men convicted of murdering Stephen Lawrence in the face of accusations that the system is broken.
David Norris will be given tens of thousands of pounds of state funding to sue the government for allegedly not keeping him safe in prison. Norris claims that officials at Belmarsh high security prison in southeast London have failed to protect him from other prisoners. He is suing the Ministry of Justice for £10,000 after suffering broken ribs, a broken nose and cuts to his face that required 18 stitches.
Norris, who was convicted with Gary Dobson of murdering the black teenager in 1993, was granted legal aid to finance his claim against the ministry at a hearing earlier this week at Central London county court. Some politicians protested at the decision. Sir Ed Davey, the home affairs spokesman for the Liberal Democrat, said the ruling showed that “the legal aid system is broken and urgently needs to be fixed”.
However, Francis FitzGibbon, QC, the chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, defended the granting of legal aid to Norris. “The rule of law does not end at the prison gate,” said the barrister. “The Ministry of Justice has responsibility for prisons and therefore has a legal duty to protect all inmates from violent attacks. If it breaches that duty the prisoner may be entitled to legal redress, and to legal aid to bring a case against the ministry. Take that away and you have the law of the jungle."
Carol Storer, the director of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, said: “[The system has to be] administered with transparent rules. Society needs a justice system that is properly funded and ensures that people are represented in court and at critical times in their lives.
“Legal aid is granted in most cases based on financial eligibility and the merits of the case. It has become increasingly difficult over the years to obtain legal aid even where there is for example domestic violence or severe housing problems.”