There is no such thing as cheap justice, there is justice and injustice one is priceless and one costs everything.

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I recently spoke with a friend I had not had the chance of catching up with for a while. We studied law at University together, he had gone off to join the family business of being a policeman, I went on to be a solicitor.

Having heard about the recent barristers strike he called wondering what it was all about.

“What’s the problem, you lot get paid loads?”

After a long explanation from me he was less surprised about that so many of us were wondering what we were going to do and considering something else, than why we weren’t all already doing else. He could not understand that so many seemingly talented, clever and committed people didn’t apply their talents elsewhere and make more money.

Yesterday, as I drove thirty-five miles from one of the “local courts” having dealt with a regular client who shouted at me, blamed me for his initial remand and then failed to thank me after I had him released. I half wondered the same, I wondered how many of the faces I see on a daily basis, will I see in a years time? Who of us are likely to survive the inevitable cull following the cuts that are just around the corner.

There is a general sense of unease about the place, there are heads close together whispering in the quiet corners, there is a lot of gallows humour and some quietly just getting on. There is talk of merger, withdrawal from the profession, pay cuts and redundancies. We all have financial obligations, we all want to keep our jobs and for our futures.

Over-arching all of that, we understand the role we play and the importance of what we do for others.   We are so very often the first and last line of defence for the vulnerable against the apparatus of the state and allegations of wrongdoing and what we do goes further than being a issue of pay.

I was apparently about twelve when I came downstairs and told my Mum and Dad that I wanted to be a lawyer.  I can’t remember how or why I had come to that decision but I am told that I had previously told them I wanted to be a pig farmer and later a lorry driver. I know why I wanted to follow those careers, there had been a piggery in the village we lived in when I was six and as a ten year old, I liked the idea of eating Yorkie bars every day.

There was no history of working as a solicitor in the family and as a good little boy I had never had a run in with the local bobby or the court system.  Still, that’s what I had said I wanted to be, and perhaps thinking that a career in law was likely to be more stable than the other options I was encouraged by my parents.

I was lucky to get a training contract having graduated at the back-end of the last big recession and worked for a small, two office firm, the like of which is now seriously threatened by the ever-increasing legal aid cuts. My training was pretty much here’s a pile of files, crack on and shout if you need help.   In at the deep end which suited me, I am not one that takes to micro-management, even less being told what and how to do it.

There was no such thing as formal “seats”, we were a small family firm. The firm did pretty much anything that came through the door; family, crime, probate, conveyancing, civil, employment; the usual work of a small High Street practice. I enjoyed and liked the people I worked with. Frankly, I was happy just to be working and grateful for the chance to do what I wanted to do, working towards becoming a solicitor.   All of it was interesting and rewarding in its own way, but what I really wanted to do was crime.

For a trainee solicitor, crime was where the exciting stuff was happening. It wasn’t just the fact that criminal work was more interesting than the work I was doing with the tweed clad Mr Jenkins in probate, or that I could supplement my income with out of hours payments.  It may seem trite, and something that gets trotted out on a regular basis but the chance of writing wrongs and ensuring justice was done was a big attraction.

Being the subject of a criminal allegation is a life changing experience; whether you say you are guilty or not guilty, whether you are found guilty or not guilty, being part of the process itself has an effect.   The recent high profile trials and subsequent acquittals of Roache, Le Vell and Travis are testament to that but I know that for every high-profile defendant who faces an allegation there are countless dozens of normal people go through the process without anyone but them really noticing.

It seems to be a relatively common belief that only criminals appear before criminal courts, that if they didn’t do that offence, they probably did something else and didn’t get caught. Luckily for us all this is very far from the truth. Having enough evidence to charge someone is not the same as having enough to convict. The police sometimes get the wrong man, some people are the victim of false allegations and some may have committed a crime but they have a defence which makes them not guilty under the law.

Looking back there was one particular case and one particular client that cemented my already held view that a life of crime was for me.

Connor was one of those people who never expected to have to rely on a solicitor or the skills of an advocate in court.

I first met him when he came into the office with one of “his boys” who had been arrested for fighting in a pub the previous weekend and needed a solicitor.  He was the lads foreman on the rail gang and he liked to keep an eye out for them. Connor told me in his very softly spoken, gentle Irish accent that this boy was basically a good lad, he just got a bit wayward with the drink in him.

Anyway, his boy got the help he needed and went back to work, supported no doubt by Connor and his soft words of advice.  Every now and then we would see another of his boys, each one having been a bit silly after drink and pointed our way by Connor.   They were always polite, always respectful and always contrite for having let Connor down.

It was early one Thursday morning when we got the call to go to the station for an allegation of child sexual abuse. There was nothing really unusual about the case when I called in to the police station to get the details. What shocked me was that the client was Connor.   Quiet, pleasant Connor who had never been in trouble in his life. Who used to tell me the most important thing in his life was Hannah, who he was caring for by himself after his wife has passed away in a car accident.

I grabbed my jacket and hurried down to the station where a pinched faced detective with a bad smell under her nose gave some disclosure. What I got told was fairly short and lacked much detail, something along the lines of,

The defendant is forty eight years old and a single father to a twelve year old girl, Hannah. Most weekends he had at least two maybe three twelve year old girls in his house under the pretext of a slumber party, he would then have them wear nightclothes whilst they all watched videos and ate pizza and he would touch these children. At least four girls have come forward and said this.

Despite asking she refused and more details, and so I went to speak to Connor. He sat in the corner of the room, head bowed and tears streaming down his face. He couldn’t bring himself to look at me at first, and then raised his head, wiped the tears away from his cheeks and said in his quiet brogue “It’s just not true Mark, I haven’t done this, you have to make them understand that.”

“I will try Connor, that’s what I am here for”

There followed hours of interviews, months of bail, more interviews, charges, Magistrates Court appearances, case conferences, pages of evidence and meetings with Counsel. Hannah was placed into foster care after Social Services considered being at home with Connor was too much of a risk. Connor came close giving up at that point, we spoke about credit for a guilty plea, for him losing Hannah was worse than anything that the court could ever do to him.

The prosecution case looked strong, all of the witnesses corroborated each other, all were consistent. Connor had a simple defence he simply hadn’t done it but we couldn’t find a reason why these four girls might be making it up. We spent a long time going through the various statements, he provided dates and times, comments made by him and to him. It was going to come down to who the court believed the most. Connor thought about it , but not for long. He was not guilty, I believed him, his Barrister believed him, not that matters. If a client professes innocence we fight for them with all the skill and expertise we have.

So a trial was fixed. The trial started on a very hot day in June, in a court without any natural light and oppressive in its closed in atmosphere. “This is what hell will feel like” Connor whispered to me.

The first of the witnesses was called and under cross examination remained steadfast in her evidence. Unshakeable and adamant that Connor had touched her more than once in places she realised were bad. The jury looked at this little girl; bright and smiling initially, tearful and dark when talking about what Connor had done to her and I could see the verdict being formulated behind their impassive faces. The future looked grim for Connor.

The second girl was less certain. She couldn’t remember some details, she got dates wrong and was vague about things. She wouldn’t look up from her lap and the jury mostly saw the top of her head across the live TV link. Looking across at the jury, it was difficult to judge how they felt about this girl and her evidence but there was obvious concern for her distress.

Then came the third witness. From the outset she was clearly reluctant to be there. Again, she didn’t look up when she was being cross-examined, and very soon after the cross-examination started she began to cry. Quiet sobbing became almost hysterical anguish. Connor’s counsel waited allowed the tears to subside and went on with the examination. A few moments later, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry Connor, we made it up!”

Stunned silence. A question from the defence about what she meant went unanswered save for more tears. “Perhaps a short break would be appropriate?” ventured the Prosecutor.

Ten minutes, turned to twenty, and on to nearly an hour. A sheepish Prosecutor came back and confirmed that the Crown would not be proceeding. A short while later the Jury were thanked for their time, they would not be needed. Connor was told that he was free to go allowed to leave, an innocent man with no mark against his character. The Crown confirmed that it had all been a lie, made up by the first witness after she had fallen out with Hannah over a boy, the other girls backing her up and tagging along initially because it was a laugh, later through fear of what would then happen to them.

Connor asked what would happen to them, would they be prosecuted? He was told that they might be, a lot of time and money had been spent in prosecuting him, not to mention the impact and consequences on his life. He smiled, “For what it’s worth I don’t want anything to happen to them, they are just young girls, who can say that they have never done anything silly when they were younger.”

In time Hannah was returned to Connor and the last I heard they had moved back to Ireland. I had a card from him a year later on the anniversary of the last day in court, with a picture of Hannah and him smiling and happy, thanking me for all that had been done.

It is these cases that make the difference and cases like these that underline why my colleagues and I do the job we do with its long hours, frustrations and shrinking renumeration.

Those of us who do this job have done so for a long time not knowing what is coming around the corner. Every time there is a consultation, a new idea thought up by people who have never actually done the job, we have rolled with it. We regularly turn up to court with no papers and clients wanting to get on straight away; we cobble together a set from the court, the prosecutor and sometimes the client. We sit and read everything quickly and advise the client. We bang heads with the prosecutor, arguing for bail, a basis of plea, trial issues. We appease the client, the clients girlfriend and his worried looking Mum. We make sure the forms are signed, dates are put in the diary and cases are prepared as best we can. We do this in every case whether we believe the client or not, that is not our job. We do it because everyone is entitled to justice, guilty or innocent, rich or poor.

Justice needs to be available to everyone, in every case and their needs to be people willing and able to try and ensure it is. The cuts to legal aid and “reforms” proposed put this in jeopardy and I have sought to oppose them whenever I can and raise awareness of the issue with whoever is willing to listen. Legal aid and the justice system costs money and those who work within it deserve to be properly paid for the work that we do.

It is for that reason that we are currently engaged in a battle with the Ministry of Justice to oppose these cuts, but it is for Connor and all those like him why I became and continue to be a criminal lawyer.

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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.

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…

The right to choose…

amerisleep-choose-right-memory-foam-mattress-firmnessThe Ministry of Justice have issued a proposal document that seeks to reform the way criminal legal aid is effectively bought by the Government. I blogged on the issue a couple of days ago and you can read it here…

https://crimsolicitor.wordpress.com/2013/04/23/the-price-of-everything-the-value-of-nothing/

Amongst the removal of legal aid for Judicial Review, the restrictions on Crown Court legal aid if you earn a certain amount of money, the removal of civil legal aid to those with less than a year in the UK and the shameful cutting of fees for the Bar, by far the most damaging is the concept of price competitive tendering.

At present legal aid is provided by those who can satisfy certain quality criteria, about 1600 providers. The proposal is to only allow the cheapest and limit the number to 400 contracts, and in all likelihood less than that number of providers. In order to make sure an “attractive” amount of work for each of these providers a client will no longer be able to choose which solicitor he has acting for him. Familiar names and firms will go, relationships of trust will be broken and you will be given one of the providers in the area that was chosen simply because they were cheaper than the others.

I don’t doubt there will remain a core of good solicitors, of solicitors who will do the job because they want to and believe in the idea of justice and fighting for your rights, but many, many of us will go. I already know of three solicitors planning to call it a day if the proposals are implemented. These are good solicitors, solicitors that I would use if I needed help.

It is the lack of client choice that appals me the most but without it the proposal cannot work, and the idea is just so misguided if, as we are told, the proposals are there to improve efficiency and save money.

Whether we like to accept it or not, the bulk of instructions we receive are from repeat offenders, people who have already been in the system. People who know us, trust us and in some cases even respect us. They are the people who rely on us to give good advice, who will trust us to do what is right for them, people who are more likely to accept the advice we give even if that is unpalatable to them. This trust means they will take the advice to plead guilty when they should and not drag it out to a trial. This is a cost saving to the fund and importantly means their victims are not forced to endure a wait for justice and the ordeal of a trial. We know these people, we know their families, we know their problems and how it affects them. This means we can direct them to the advice and help we need.

The lawyer/client relationship is one built on trust, it is vital that is not thrown away in the name of expediency and cost. With it we can help give justice not just to the client, but to the victim and in the words of Chris Grayling spend the taxpayers hard earned money effectively and responsibly.

Let me give you an illustration of how important the client relationship is. I posted the following in a slightly different format a while ago when arguing for face to face advice in the police station, something that was at risk when the Government where considering the last major reduction to legal aid and reducing access to justice. The principles remain the same, perhaps more so.

Let me introduce you to Brian…

Brian is 6’4″ tall, weighs 22 stone, shaves his head and has tattoos covering about two-thirds of his body. Brian suffers from a number of physical difficulties including epilepsy and has been categorised as having a borderline personality disorder and takes a cocktail of medication each day.

He speaks slowly and has a broad West Country accent. First impressions on meeting Brian are rarely positive. Physically he is intimidating and his speech and mannerisms often give the impression that he is slow to comprehend things.

As a result the contact he has had with authority figures whether that be police, doctors, social services or courts rarely go smoothly. People treat him as being stupid, and he becomes frustrated, voices are raised and one thing leads to another, usually badly for Brian. Brian is certainly not stupid, just unable to communicate very well.

Three years ago Brian met Sheila. Sheila was the love of his life, his first girlfriend. For ten months Brian spent all his time with and all his money on Sheila; flowers, chocolates, fancy meals, clothes, jewellery and a myriad of other gifts. All was well with his life.

At the end of ten months Sheila left Brian and there was no reason given, no real explanation, she just stopped answering his calls, texts were not responded to and her Mum told him she was never in. Brian became depressed, his medication was upped and over time he found a level to build from.

Then two months later Sheila contacted him again.

A text, would he meet her, she wanted to talk.

Delighted, he met her in their café and she told him she was pregnant. Not for a minute did he question whether he was the father. In his head he straight away made plans about what the baby would need, where they could go and what he would do with her. Sheila made it clear that she didn’t want him to have any involvement at all, he could provide for the baby and that was that. Nothing Brian could say would change her mind.

Resigned to the fact he may never see his child he nevertheless started buying clothes, toys and other essentials from his Disability Living Allowance. He opened an account and put £10 a week into it, “For when she was 18 and needed a car”.

Six months later, Hazel was born.

Brian was not present at the birth and was only told he had a daughter two weeks after the actual birth by way of a text message. Brian immediately went to see Sheila but she wouldn’t see him. He didn’t see Hazel but was sent a blurry picture to his mobile phone.

At that point someone told Brian that he was entitled to see his daughter, he had rights. He contacted the firm I worked for and the process of him seeking contact was started. Time was spent with him, and a relationship was built with him. At first things were not easy, he distrusted authority figures, he did not want to communicate with us, and wasn’t happy to speak about himself and his life. But, things got better and as he began to trust us he provided information that we needed to help him and to built a case. There then started eight months of assessments; court, doctors and social workers and various distressing court hearings where Brian’s life was dissected.

You see, not only did Brian have various medical issues he had a caution when he was 17, for sexual assault. He had kissed a girl, a fifteen year old, who he thought was his best friend. She told her Mum, she told the police and he was arrested. The circumstances were not in dispute but it meant Brian was a potential risk to a child, even his own. Finally the court ordered that Brian be allowed three two hour contact sessions a week, supervised and in a child friendly environment.

For three months all went well. Brian had his contact and he thrived from it. He had a new tattoo on his arm proudly proclaiming his daughters name and date of birth. He was in his own words, “as happy as I had ever been”.

Then, through no fault of his own his benefits money changed and he had less to live on. Some weeks he could not afford to pay the maintenance he had been paying to Sheila. Suddenly Hazel was ill, she was away, she was asleep and so he was no longer having his contact. She wasn’t, they were all just excuses made up by Sheila. For a while Brian accepted these reasons and did not make a fuss. As the days went by his frustration increased, calls were made to Sheila, texts sent and visits made. Still no contact.

Battling with his emotions; the frequency of the calls increased, texts filled Sheila’s inbox, he knocked on her door more and more often. Frustration moved to annoyance and then anger. Words were said in desperation and sent in texts for all to see. Brian was arrested for harassment and I turned out at 11pm to represent him. He had said he didn’t want a solicitor at first but a sensible custody sergeant had persuaded him. He asked for my firm as he knew us and trusted us. I spent forty minutes with him, I already knew who Brian was and I understood where the root cause of the problem came from.

After advice and an interview, representations were made to the Sgt and a caution given. Brian was also told how he could enforce his court order for contact, and an appointment made for the following day.

I went on to the next client and forgot about Brian. I saw him a few weeks later pushing a pram, fussing about a blanket over his baby daughter. We stopped and chatted for a few minutes, made the obligatory comments about a beautiful baby, wished him well and went on with my day.

A few days ago I was called to the police station for a “lump of a man” who had been difficult from the moment he came in and was still being difficult in his cell. He had been arrested for common assault.

I went straight up to the station. I was told that the client was Brian and was told that four weeks ago he had punched his ex partner over a contact visit, they were both in the middle of a busy shop, people and children had been scared. He was asked to leave and he had walked off.

I was told that he had admitted it when he was arrested and that the interview was a formality. There was no injury but having in mind his previous caution on the same victim, his background and the fact he had been difficult all the way through his detention he was going to be charged.

I was able to find out by speaking to the officer, although he was reluctant to tell me, that the statement had only been made three days ago. I asked to speak to Brian, and got a drink for him, hot chocolate with five sugars because I knew that’s what he liked.

I went into the room to speak to Brian. He was in tears, a monster of a man sobbing into his fists in the corner of the interview room. As soon as I walked into the room he became calmer, he started to listen to what was being said to him. He knew me and he trusted me.

It seemed that, on the day, he and Sheila had made the usual arrangements for a contact visit, but one of them had made a mistake and having waited twenty minutes Sheila had gone off shopping. Brian had called her and when she said she was in the supermarket shopping, he had gone down to speak to her and hopefully persuade Sheila to allow the contact visit.

He had gone to the shop where he had found Sheila with her head in a freezer choosing a pizza. When he called her name he said she didn’t answer him but thought she may not have heard him, it was after all a busy shop and her head was in the freezer.

“So what did you do?”

“I tapped her hard on the shoulder to get her attention so i could speak to her. She shouted at me and the Manager asked me to leave”

He denied that he had on he had punched her, and maintained that he was not angry with her.

He went on to say that he hadn’t seen Hazel since, and he had not paid Sheila maintenance for three weeks because he had not had contact. Three days ago she said she was going to report the assault.

He was scared that he would lose all his contact with Hazel because of more lies. He said that Sheila did not need him now as she had a new boyfriend. He said he didn’t want to talk to the police officers as they wouldn’t let him speak and thought he was stupid.

I explained that in law he had committed an assault by touching her without her permission, even if he had not punched her. I told him he needed to explain his history with Sheila to the officers and that the officers had not let him speak before because they wanted to protect him and themselves as the comments needed to be on tape.

Brian wasn’t certain whether he could say all he wanted to say properly, he didn’t think he could talk to the officers and let them know all they needed to know. He was scared that he would make his situation worse and by admitting an assault Sheila would go back to the court and he would lose his contact.

I drafted a prepared statement, Brian signed it and I read it out for him at the start of the interview. I made it clear that Brian was happy to answer any clarification questions. With patience and cajoling from me and the AA Brian got through the interview.

The officer told the Sgt that he had made a full admission to the offence, that he had been frustrated by the contact being messed up and he had hit Sheila on the shoulder. She was factually correct, that’s what he had said in his statement, and in the questions he had then answered. The meaning of what he had said was different, a fact I explained to the Sgt and the officer. After much discussion and thought, it was agreed that on the balance of the evidence, the lack of corroborative witnesses and taking Brian himself into account that there should be no further action and Brian was released.

He still has to resolve the issue of contact, without the help of a legal aid lawyer now but at least he does not have the additional burden of a charge to deal with.

This is just one example of why the right to choose the solicitor of your choice is so very important and one that we should all fight to preserve. It is not unique and I and my colleagues could give you so very, very many stories of a similar type. My knowledge of “my clients”, the relationship we build with them and the trust that we develop helps ensure justice for them and often their victims. This is something that is hugely important to me. It really isn’t about the money.

I’m not saying that the same results would not have happened if Brian had been allocated different unknown solicitors each time he had beeb arrested and thatBrian would have been facing a charge in court. I am saying that in his case there would be a very real risk that he would have simply not co-operated due to his difficulties, and an injustice may have happened and what price do we put on ensuring an injustice does not happen. In this case I was able to use my knowledge of my client, his circumstances and my working relationship with the police to prevent a possible injustice and more importantly save money for the public purse.

He will be able to continue to see Hazel and that means he remains stable and happy and does not push him off the rails where who knows what it might cost to put right. The cost of a court case has been avoided.

Your right to choose a solicitor and a barrister of your choice of legal advice is important. Make sure that you can exercise it in the future and let your MP know how you feel. This is a really important issue, nobody wants to think they will be arrested or face a charge, but sometimes the unthinkable happens. When it does then make sure you can choose who you or your loved ones are helped by.

Please sign the petition www.epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/48628

Contact your MP http://www.parliament.uk/about/contacting/mp/

Respond to the Consultation (you don’t have to be a lawyer)