Transforming Legal Aid – The next step is into the unknown…

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When I first started blogging about the legal aid reforms proposed by Chris Grayling I referred to them as an extinction event for the profession. The proposals as they stood at the time were likely to drive all but a very few providers out of business. It was envisaged that the reforms would result in widespread firm closures, job losses and a devastation of the junior Bar. Nearly a year later the situation is no better, and arguably a lot worse.

The Ministry of Justice posited the need for the reforms as being effectively out of their control; like countless others before him Grayling relied on “just following orders” claiming he had to make his books balance after a spending review was imposed on him from above. What he didn’t do was fight his corner and fight the level of cuts required of his department.

After that he went on the offensive, briefing and briefing hard against the profession. Whenever the reforms were discussed by the Ministry the same old phrases were trotted out; most expensive legal aid system in the world, £2 billion of hard earned tax-payers money spent last year, reforms designed to ensure a stable supplier base and protect access to justice for all.

Those reasons have, over the last twelve months been shown to be at best inaccurate, at worst intentionally misleading. Little surprise there, from a Minister who has a track record for being openly dishonest with facts and figures. Both sides of the profession have time and time again highlighted how the Minister has got his figures wrong and why the proposals were not just wrong but incredibly short-sighted and did nothing to enshrine access to justice.

Last Thursday the Ministry of Justice released their response to the last consultation on Legal Aid. Two months later than it had been originally promised and totally ignoring the concerns raised by the varying factions of the profession. It is perhaps a measure of quite how bad the proposals are that there are no winners in these reforms, only losers, some heavy losers and some very heavy losers. There is nothing in the proposals that will give heart to the smaller firms, and very little that give heart to the likes of the Big Firm Group. More worrying to all of us as legal aid lawyers is the fact that access to Justice is the biggest loser.

If we are honest with ourselves, and to be blunt as a profession we rarely are, these cuts were signposted a long time ago and we blindly carried on hoping the day would never come. Lack of leadership from the Law Society, the protection of vested interests and the minutiae of just doing the job meant we carried on regardless.

We showed the Ministry that we could stand together and managed to stage a half day of action, but in the peculiar way that the profession seeks permission for everything we wrote to the courts and the sitting Judiciary and politely asked that our clients cases be adjourned or put back in the list. The courts kept going and there was very little chaos and the wheels of justice simply ground a little slower for three or four hours.

The consultation response was expected in December, the fact it was published over two months was the first example of irony in the document. The Lord Chancellor wants the profession to demonstrate they can work efficiently, quickly and cost effectively; aims he clearly doesn’t expect of his own department. The delay might be excusable if the proposals had genuinely considered and actioned the proposals put before him. What we got was in reality the worst possible compromise.

There are in reality two schools of thought as to what we as a profession, and by we I am talking about solicitors, wanted from the consultation. The big firm group wanted extreme market consolidation which would give increased volume. Although they oppose the cuts in fees they could make them work if the volume was there. The rest, oppose market consolidation and cuts in fees and want a totally open market for own and duty clients. If we fail then we fail because of ourselves and not because of some half-baked attempt to engineer the market. Now many of us will fail because of a way of working has been imposed on us that takes no heed of what we do and why.

The Ministry of Justice smiled, nodded and politely listened to what we had to say. They met with some us, they snuggled up to the Law Society and took large parts of what they had suggested and then added a huge cut in fees. So what we get is market consolidation, dual contracting and a cut in fees that means no one can do the job and work with a guarantee that their future is sustainable. What we have is not enough market consolidation that allows the BFG enough volume to survive fee cuts; too much market consolidation to allow the smaller firms to even open their doors.

The Ministry of Justice has done exactly what it intended to do when it first published the initial consultation document. Client choice is academic if there are no firms able to do the work. The reality is that unless you secure one of the duty contracts then you cannot really open the doors to the own clients. If you don’t have a duty contract then at the end of the day where are your own clients going to come from in the future, what happens when your own clients grow up and stop offending, and most do?

So what do we do now?

There will be no immediate climb down by the Ministry of Justice. Chris Grayling is a man with a mission, and like zealots and missionaries before him he is blinded by the cause he follows. Politics is a cruel mistress, but for politicians it is a mistress that must be followed and appeased. He is well aware that he may be in post for less than another 18 months. If he loses his position after the next election and finds himself in opposition he wants to be able to say to his political masters that it’s not his fault, he made the cuts asked of him, he has shown that he will not bend to whims of this he represents, he did not cave under the pressure.

I was talking the other day to a client who has some extreme and frankly unpleasant views on a lot of political issues. He said “Campaigns for change only work when you can convince those other than the activists to care about what you are campaigning for”

In the context of lawyers fees, legal aid and access to justice this is the key for us. We strike to raise awareness of the issue and protest the cuts. In doing so we must ensure the public know why, and we must gather the momentum of their support, to do anything else it all becomes a pay negotiation and we all know it is so much more than that.

As we stand outside the courts we usually stalk through make sure you tell those who ask why.

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The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth…

There is no room for politics in justice and no justice can be found in politics.

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The opposition to The Lord Chancellors “reforms” to the wider criminal justice system and to legal aid particularly has been on very many fronts; lack of choice, diminution of quality, damage to the long term sustainability of the profession, the destruction of the junior bar and the inevitable lack of talent from which the senior judiciary are chosen. The justification for the reforms has been pretty one-sided from the Ministry of Justice, principally cuts in expenditure must be made, should be made and will be made. As a country we have the most expensive legal aid system in the world and most of the profession are paid far too much money.

If I was in court presenting the case against cuts it would be at that moment that I might pause, look at the Minister, tilt my head to one side and ask him whether he seriously believed what he was telling the court? Pressing him further, I might go on to remind him that he had sworn on oath to tell the truth, that he was deliberately setting his face against the overwhelming evidence against him and was simply choosing to ignore a number of inconvenient truths for political purposes?

Politicians of any political colour have one simple aim, to stay in power as long as they possibly can. I am sure that most politicians enter the fray with the grandest of ambitions and the loftiest of intentions. That they genuinely believe that what they are doing in our name is for the best, that they have a plan to improve the lot of those who elected them and that if only they had the time they could carry it through. How depressing it would be if our politicians simply wanted to get elected for more mundane and sordid purposes, because power begets power and money, for Directorships, speaking positions, consultancies and the myriad way that venal men seek reward. The reality is of course that there are no votes in preserving a vibrant and diverse legal system, that no politician wants to be seen to be the one that pays the lawyers, that no political party wants to be seen to expand or even preserve the rights of the so called “criminal class”, the benefit scrounger or anyone who doesn’t quite fit to the Daily Mail ideal of a decent British chap.

So what is to be done when confronted with a larger and larger body of evidence, cogently and persuasively argued by those who know a thing or two about their profession, the principles of justice and the importance of independence?

Very simple, lie of course, tell little lies, big lies and outright whoppers. Keep telling them, create figures that demonstrate your point, brief sympathetic media and simply shout down those that oppose you. After all it’s the lawyers who have first class tickets on the gravy train, they are the ones that represent those that as a society we all fear, the ones that governments have been trying to protect you from. They are the ones that support those ridiculous human rights, rights for prisoners, asylum seekers and those work shy malingerers that those wonderful people from ATOS say are well enough to work but choose not to.

Ever since the first legal aid consultation was announced the Ministry of Justice have sought to brief the press and persuade the public that the legal aid system is the most expensive system in the world, that the majority of barristers and solicitors are paid huge unwarranted sums of money from the public purse and that any complaints we might make are just the cries of a fat cat being squeezed.

Yet the evidence does not stack up. The facts repeatedly show that we as a profession work harder, longer and more effectively for ever diminishing returns.

The £2 billion figure which is still unbelievably clung to like a four year olds comfort blanket is a lie. The cost of criminal legal aid has fallen year on year and continues to fall, costing the taxpayer less each year. The Ministry of Justice even underspent the budget last year.

The majority of barristers last year didn’t get to take home £84,000 but a much more average figure of £34,000. For many of the junior bar £34,000 seems like a lottery win and an unattainable goal. Saddled with debts from student loans and professional fees incurred as they were sold an impossible dream of triumphantly striding through the Royal Courts of Justice whilst desperate defendants petitioned them to take on their case, the figures bandied about by the Ministry are frankly insulting.

If you want the truth then look at this which sets the record straigh

The legal aid system costs the taxpayer approximately £32 per person per year. This ranks us tenth in a list of comparable countries and systems. This is not by any estimation the most expensive system in the world, but to tell you otherwise would be to expose the lie that the Ministry are trying to sell you.

In a system that is based on the pursuit of truth from the very outset to the closing of the case, the biggest lie sold to you by Chris Grayling and the Ministry of Justice is that his reforms are designed to ensure we preserve the best system of justice in the world. Perhaps we had such a system, sadly we cannot lay claim to that title any more.

A system that has been stripped out from the top to the bottom cannot be the best in the world. A hollowed out police force, a probation system sold to the private sector, the daily lottery of whether the interpreter booked for court will even attend, a system of payment that would rewards a guilty plea rather than a trial and a prison service that simply warehouses those it incarcerates in ever bigger sheds.

There is no room for politics in justice and no justice can be found in politics.

What Mr Grayling doesn’t want you to know…

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As the e-petition started by Rachel Bentley reached 60,000 signatures over the weekend, the Ministry of Justice posted a response to it as they are apparently entitled to. Clearly written by a member of staff in a hurry, “pubic” rather than “public” creating a few laughs, the response does little more than re-hash the information and the arguments put forward by the Ministry and Grayling over the past few weeks.

The same arguments that Ministry staff were unable to answer when questioned by lawyers all over the country in the recent engagement meetings (if this is engagement, the wedding is going to be fun). The same arguments that Grayling has trotted out to the press and which some of the press have simply lapped up and printed verbatim and in particular the Express and Daily Mail. The same arguments that have been forensically dismantled by a great number of lawyers, blogging, speaking and engaging with the public.

The reality is Grayling has decided that he will make cuts, he has decided how he will make those cuts and even agreed the amount of cuts he will make with Osborne, if yesterday’s headlines are to be believed. The consultation is, as I said in my first blog on this subject, a sham, fig-leaf of respectability. The Lord Chancellor has said over and over again that PCT will come in, and with PCT comes the removal of choice, the dumbing down of the profession, the greater risk of miscarriage of justice and the loss of most of the independent bar.

If the proposals are beyond reproach, beyond criticism and are so very necessary then The Lord Chancellor need have no worry about a debate as he would be able to show to us all and his colleagues how well reasoned they are, where we who actually do the job and appreciate the realities of it are wrong. As it stands there will be no debate, the proposals will never be subject to scrutiny and more importantly for us all as lawyers, no-one will test the evidence.

Let us for a moment then consider what the Ministry have said on the petition.

Mr Grayling tells us that we have the most expensive legal aid system in the world, with over £1billion pounds of tax-payers money spent on criminal legal aid. Both facts are untrue.

In comparing legal aid systems the Government fail to account for the fact that we have an adversarial system, pitting one view of the evidence against the other. Other legal systems use the inquisitorial system, evidence based but by a tribunal seeking the answers. Both have their advantages and both have their disadvantages, an adversarial system costs more for lawyers, an inquisitorial system costs more for investigation and judges/courts. If this is taken into account the net effect is that we spend on average the same as most other criminal justice systems in the world.

Mr Grayling doesn’t want you to know that.

The £1billion plus figure is an old figure. The figure for last year is less than £950 million, for the next year likely to be less than £900 million. In fact the criminal legal aid budget has been reducing for some time. Cuts already imposed, the lessening of work through the courts, the introduction, removal and then re-introduction of means testing in both the Magistrates and Crown Court have all seen the figures reduce. Fees in the Magistrates and Crown Court have not increased in over ten plus years, and many have been reduced already or removed all together.

Mr Grayling doesn’t want you to know that.

The proposals seek to remove the right to legal aid from prisoners that want to complain about conditions, categorisation and the like. This is an easy target for the Ministry and sure to gain support from the members of the general public. Why, after all should the people who have committed a crime be allowed to complain about the conditions they are held in?

As Grayling said in an interview with Catherine Baksi reporting in the Law Society Gazette that “We know the people in our prisons and who come into our courts come from the most difficult and challenged backgrounds.” If we accept at face value this comment, and see it as recognition of the problems in prison rather than a perjorative description then that the fact that is recognised and yet the government still seek to limit access to justice is very worrying.

Surely, it is for this very reason that those serving a prison sentence who have issues as to their conditions, sentence and categorisation should be allowed access to legal aid to challenge these decisions. The fact that they need to seek legal advice is indicative that the complaints system has either not been working for them or simply doesn’t address the needs of the prisoner. Why would a person imprisoned by the State feel that the very system that they are complaining about would take their complaints seriously?

Mr Grayling doesn’t want you to know that.

High value cases swallow up millions in tax-payers money. Really? Bears relieve themselves in woods, and the Pope is Catholic. This is hardly news. Difficult cases mean lengthy prosecutions, which means in many cases lengthy and complicated defences. Is it right that a complicated case should have legal aid restricted, refused because it costs too much money? Should the right to properly test a case and explore a legitimate defence be compromised because it swallows up money.

What Mr Grayling wants you to believe is that lawyers have been wasting your money on cases that you might find morally or ethically repugnant, cases like Abu Qatada who has spent over £500,000 of your hard earned tax on legal aid defending deportation over the last ten years. Yes, that is a lot of money, no it’s a huge sum of money. Whatever you might think of Qatada, his views and his politics he faced extradition and was entitled to contest it, within the law and using the law. The Government were entitled to try and extradite him, they lost not because of the legal aid being spent, but because the law was against them. It’s not, contrary to what Mr Grayling would have you believe, the defence lawyers that bring these cases. It’s the Government, it’s the prosecution of offences committed when someone allegedly breaks one of the laws that the Government have passed.

If Mr Grayling really wants to cut the legal aid budget simply make nothing illegal, no crimes, no criminals and no need for lawyers. Now that’s something I don’t want Mr Grayling to know.

Legal aid and the access to justice it allows is not something we can choose to give to one because we sympathise with their views and actions and refuse to others because of their views and actions. Justice is only justice when it is applied in an even handed way.

Mr Grayling doesn’t want you to know that.

Mr Grayling also targets high paid counsel, who shock horror were paid more money than the Prime Minister and some senior civil servants, and of course more than him. Some were paid nearly £500,000 in one year! This is clearly designed to offend the readers of the Mail and Express who all pay their taxes and contribute to society. How dare someone be paid well for a job of work.

Except the headline figure does not explain the detail of where that money may have come from, how many cases, how many years those cases ran on before conclusion. It also fails to say that counsel are self-employed. That figure if £500,000, and only a very very few earn at that level in any one year and virtually none consistently is not money in the bank. From that money, tax will have had to be paid, National Insurance, VAT, Chambers rents, clerks fees, travel costs, books and materials to allow the work to be done in the first place. There will have been no holiday pay, no sick pay available.

Mr Grayling doesn’t want you to know that.

Under the reforms those who do not have a strong link to the UK will not qualify for legal aid. Essentially those that have been in the UK for less than a year will not be eligible to legal aid. This will mean that those who seek asylum will be unable to access legal aid for the first year they are in the UK, after which they will likely not be in the UK. Those that have been trafficked into the UK by criminal gangs cannot access legal aid to ensure and preserve their rights. Perhaps an extreme example but if applied, the baby who is the subject of care proceedings cannot have a lawyer to represent their rights, because they haven’t been in the UK for a year. So it may save some money, but where is the justice?

Mr Grayling doesn’t want you to know that.

Under the proposals Mr Grayling tells us that you will still have access to quality duty solicitors and lawyers. He doesn’t tell you that three in four current firms are likely to disappear over-night. He doesn’t tell you that the firms that will take your case will be allocated to you and you will not be able to choose the lawyer you trust or want. He doesn’t tell you that you will not have the right to change the lawyer allocated to you if they don’t provide you an acceptable service.

He doesn’t tell you that the fees he will be prepared to pay give the lawyer an incentive to settle a case early, and in criminal cases that means pleading guilty. He doesn’t tell you that firms like G4S, Stobarts and Tesco have all indicated that they would consider bidding for a contract. These are all companies who are listed on the stock market; all companies who are accountable to share holders and not you, the public or their clients.

The fact a lawyer will be available to you is not Mr Graylings choice, a couple of years ago the Government seriously considered the possibility of removing face to face access to a solicitor in the police station if you were arrested. It’s only a matter of time before Mr Grayling thinks about this again, before he thinks of another way to “save” your tax and without a committed and broad base of defence lawyers available, who will stop him then?

Mr Grayling doesn’t want you to know that.

The petition needs 100,000 signatures for the issue to be considered for a debate in Parliament. Mr Grayling doesn’t want that to happen, as he knows he cannot fudge and bluster his way through the questions that have and need to be asked as he and his Ministry have done so far.

If you value justice, if you value accountability, if you believe that spending on criminal legal aid a sum equal to less than 0.5% of all the money the Government spends annually is a price worth paying for a fair and just legal system then please sign the petition to help ensure a debate.

Over the past few weeks many people have written so many very good reasons why the reforms are fundamentally wrong and why they need opposing, and should not be imposed. You can, and please should read them here. and Mr Grayling really doesn’t want you to know that…

When there is no enemy within, the enemies outside cannot hurt you.

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“When there is no enemy within, the enemies outside cannot hurt you.”
Winston Churchill

There are approximately 125,000 solicitors practising in England and Wales and a further 40,000 who remain on the Solicitors Roll but who do not practice. Additionally, there are about 6000 barristers working in the country.

The e-petition created by Rachel Bentley needs 100,000 signatures to make sure a debate in Parliament on the Ministry of Justice proposals for the reform of Legal Aid. So why have we not yet reached the figure needed? Maths was never one of my strongest subjects but if all the solicitors and all the barristers signed we would be well over the finishing line by now.

Well, obviously not all will support the petition, although I have been struck by the sense of unity within the criminal profession, both solicitors and barristers. Some will still not know about it as it simply does not affect their part of the profession. What relevance does legal aid have to a city lawyer. Others, and this is a view I have come across more and more often, have said to me why should I bother, you did nothing when the Ministry came for me?

This is sadly, true. For too long now we have sat on the sidelines whilst we watched others within the profession get slowly taken apart and thought “Well, thank goodness it wasn’t me, this time!”

Conveyancers lost out as their part of the industry was made open to the market, probate departments watched as unregulated will-writers moved in and took a massive share of the market. The Bar struck a compromise when solicitors fees were cut, solicitors lapped up the right to become Higher Advocates. Civil lawyers were left reeling after various funding reviews and criminal lawyers breathed a sigh of relief when LASPO seemingly left us largely untouched, whilst the family lawyers looked around at the devastation caused.

It’s natural to want to protect your own. It is perhaps understandable to walk on by when you might get hurt by wading in. What it means is that when you need someone to help you they may simply not be there.

I blogged about the possible consequences of LASPO when it was being mooted as far as criminal lawyers were concerned. I mentioned the impact on my family lawyer colleagues but no more. I didn’t understand them, I didn’t appreciate the likely consequences enough to comment on them and left it to those that did to try and do something about it. I regret that now. It may have been of no help but at least I could say I tried.

The Ministry of Justice tell us that they are prepared to listen to us, that they will seriously consider an alternative to PCT and across the board fee cuts if we can show an alternative. The reality is that without the figures, the information on costs, costing and so forth we are always going to be at a disadvantage. The people who hold this information are the very people who want to impose the cuts. We need to have this matter in the open, to have it properly debated and examined and not just within a closed group of lawyers.

The e-petition will not in itself stop PCT, it cannot propose the alternative, but it will raise the issue to a wider audience and will hopefully allow a debate that we can all contribute to.

If you are a lawyer of any sort please sign it, have your colleagues sign it, have your family sign it and raise the issue everywhere. Let us all as a profession, regardless of discipline, history or position move forward together as one. Otherwise when the men from the Ministry come for you, and they will, there may be no-one there to stand by your side.