Public Outcry Over Criminal Legal Aid Cuts….NOT!

legal aid cuts

Hello are you a solicitor or a barrister.

Come in, sit down.

I have been reviewing the evidence in your case and I’m afraid I have some bad news for you. I will say it quietly so as to try and not upset you.

Nobody likes you.

There I have said it. No, no please don’t get upset.   After all, what do you expect?    You are arrogant, elitist, aloof, expensive, lazy, uncommunicative and prey on the misery of others.

As lawyers we are seen on the evolutionary scale only a little higher than pond life. Only estate agents and traffic wardens rank lower in the publics affection. Worse still it’s all our own fault.

As a profession we are really very bad at selling ourselves.   We really do need better PR.

Just look at how lawyers are portrayed in the general media. Fat Cats, ambulance chasers, snake oil sellers and quite often in league with the devil, if not the devil themselves.

The reality of the situation is that the public think lawyers are lawyer are lawyers, it does not matter where we ply our trade.

Lawyers worked alongside bankers in the financial industry, and we all know what the bankers have been doing over the past few years.

Lawyers administer compensation schemes for the victims of the BP disaster and similar, and we all know what rapacious bastards the oil companies are.

Lawyers represent footballers, actors and media stars when they want to get an injunction against the lady who they have had an affair with and don’t want anyone else to know about because they don’t want their public to think badly of them.

Lawyers are creaming millions of pounds from the government in Legal Aid. Lawyers sue the NHS for untold damages which means that the hospital haven’t got enough money for Grannies hip operation this month and she is back on the waiting list again.

As criminal lawyers we are seen as particularly pernicious and unpleasant. What question do you get asked more often than not by others at parties and social gatherings.  I bet it is something along the lines of  “How can you sleep at night knowing that you are trying to keep that rapist, burglar, paedophile out of prison?”   In the minds of the general public we are seen as only one step removed from the client.

Look at the public outcry at the way the Dowler family were cross-examined. What was the lawyer doing?   He was acting upon his clients instructions. I have never met the man, or any of the solicitors that acted on the case, and yet I can guarantee he didn’t enjoy one minute of that experience.   He didn’t want to have the Mother break down in court, he didn’t want to portray the Father as some sort of repressed sex fiend.   He was following instructions, and yet who was the villain of that set piece, not Bellfield, but the lawyer.  Even the CPS, fellow lawyers, joined the cry and fuelled the fire as to how outrageous it all was.

Last year, the daughter of a man killed in a road traffic accident by a client of mine slapped me hard and then spat full force in my face outside of the court room following the sentence.   She said nothing to the client who had just been fined £2000.

Why attack me?   Simple, in her mind, I had been the one that acheived the fine for the client.   She wanted him to face a firing squad that day or at the very least face the rest of his natural life in jail.   She had just been told that her Father was effectively worth £2000.   The client was never going to face a punishment other than a fine.   He was a very pleasant man, and had done an awful lot for the whole community he had lived in and served for many years.   A stupid mistake, a momentary lapse in concentration and his life and that of the family were ruined.   Tragedy writ large in a small village.  In standing up and representing this man, who was unable to articulate his position, his sorrow and his guilt himself, I became the villain and not him.

In the minds of many police officers I deal with, and surely I cannot be alone, I am as bad as the client.  There he is trying to make the streets safe by getting the client charged and in prison; there I am trying to get the client back on the street. Why do I want him on the street? So that the police officer can arrest him and I can make more money from him.

A particularly oafish officer said to a client the other day who was following advice and not answering the questions, “Don’t think Mr Glendenning is here for you, he’s only here for the money.  He doesn’t care about you, he’s not the one that will have to do the sentence when you get convicted.  You should tell me the truth and get a lesser sentence in court.”   What was said to the officer was not pleasant and he now fully understands my position.

The client was a regular and knew what the officer was trying to do, and why he wasn’t answering questions.   Yet still he thought that I was making a shed load of money from him, not because of him, from him.   He asked me how much I got paid for coming to the police station to represent him that night.

We had been there four hours at the time, I had had a thirty minute drive there, was going to have a thirty minute drive back and it was at that time 1am. I told him, £150 or rather that was what the firm was going to get paid.   I was going to get rather less than that and then it was going to be taxed.

He told me I was mad and it was hard not to disagree.    He was a plumber by trade.  We worked out that if it was him coming out on a Saturday night, spending five hours of his time he would be charging me a call out fee of £120, and then for every half hour he was there after the first hour he would charge me another £55 .   So in total I would be paying him £560 plus VAT and he said he was cheap.  Yet he still thought that he represented better value for money, that what I was doing did not really involve any real skills or abilities.   He could do what I was doing, could I do what he did?

From another perspective, a client last month proudly told me he had just paid £1400 for an all singing and all dancing TV and home cinema kit. It was clearly his pride and joy.

He baulked when I told him that it would cost him £250 all in for a Special Reasons argument which, if succesful would mean he could keep his drivers licence and continue to work as a scaffolder.  He paid and he kept his licence and paid up through gritted teeth, muttering about parasites. For a fifth of what he had just paid for his TV he kept his licence and this means he can still work, can pay his rent and buy his food and presumably pay for his TV.   The difference being when he sits down on an evening with a pint of beer and his pizza he can look at his TV and think that was money well spent. In his mind he has nothing to show for the £250 he spent with me.

Now I know that he paid me privately, and he didn’t get the benefit of Legal Aid, but it’s what he thought that counted.   Was I value for money, was I just making money from him at a time when he was vulnerable, in need.   The answer was clearly yes.  When I am spending public money then that feeling is magnified a hundred times.   I am costing the Government, and by definition all those people who are paying their taxes money that could be spent more profitably elsewhere.   The general public simply don’t see the benefits we provide, the service we offer.

The government don’t like you either, and the LSC think you are a crook. They think you are paid too much and that you do things that you don’t need to just to generate a fee. Why do you need to turn out to the police station when telephone advice could be given?

Why should you be paid for the time you spend on a case when we can pay you a fixed fee? The reality of what we do in the police station, as to why we are there is not considered, will not be considered. We cost the tax-payer money and we need to say the tax-payers money at all costs. If people are interviewed and charged without a solicitor present then that’s a risk we can live with in the interests of saving money. After all, there is no smoke without fire is there?

The legal aid cuts proposed are founded on misconception and mistake.  They are about costs saving and that is all.   They are not designed to make the profession better or to make it more efficient.   We as a profession know that.   It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the recession and global meltdown was in many ways quite convenient.   Whole areas of publically funded professions can be cut down to size.   It’s not necessarily a vendetta but it is an erosion of our rights.   We are able to discuss that amongst ourselves and come up with campaign groups and all agree that we need to do something.

What we dont have is public support and we are unlikely to get that based on how the public feel about us.  Moreover it’s just not a vote winner is it?

NHS reforms were “paused” and amended as a result of a concerted effort by the profession and some MP’s who had been sucessfully lobbied.  Mess with the NHS and you need to be sure you are on firm ground.  Everyone can think of someone who is in hospital, has been in hospital or might need to go to hospital.  They want to be certain that when they need it, there will be someone to treat them quickly, efficiently and more importantly knowing what they are doing .

Tell the general public that you might have to close your business because you can’t afford to accept the rates paid by the LSC.  Explain to them that if they are not careful when they need a solicitor to come out to them at three in the morning there may not be anyone there to do it as a result of legal aid cuts and they just shrug.  Good riddance, another lawyer gone.  In their minds you represent the worst elements of society and that’s just not them and will never be them.

The old adage rings true.  Nobody likes a lawyer until they need one. Everybody understands the need for state funded education and state funded health care. Indeed they want it and expect it.

They don’t appreciate the need for state funded lawyers.  They can’t imagine they will ever need you.  Until they are in the wrong place at the wrong time, they have to fight for custody or any other myriad of legal issues we deal with on a daily basis they wont understand the significance of losing that right.

Getting the public to understand that is the only way to change things and we are our own worst enemies at winning over the public.


Author: crimsolicitor

I am a Criminal Defence Lawyer, committed to providing the best defence I can for those who need it, regardless of their ability to pay...

One thought on “Public Outcry Over Criminal Legal Aid Cuts….NOT!”

  1. Sadly this is so very true. At my last firm even the partners outside of the criminal department looked down on us. That was until their little Johnny or Jane got arrested in the small hours and then they wanted (and invariably got) instant assistance.

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