By the light of a dying star…

images-25

“A great deal of talent is lost to the world for the want of a little courage…”

Sydney Smith

Hannah Evans is a third six pupil at 23 Essex Street, a young barrister with fire in her belly and a passion for what she does. She gave a speech at the One Bar event arranged by the Bar Council on 8 February. Her speech, which makes compelling reading and exhibits a greater level of understanding of the career she is embarking upon than anything trotted out by the Ministry of Justice can be read here.

Hannah is like so very many of the Junior Bar, burdened with debt trying to get the tiniest toe hold in the profession. There are so many young, talented people at her level in both sides of the profession working in publicly funded areas of law who we are at very real risk of losing when the cuts proposed by the Ministry of Justice are imposed.

The majority of the profession, both barristers and solicitors do this job realising that they were never going to be rich. They do the job with a passion for the job, with a firmly held belief that what we do is something good, to try and make their clients problems a little easier to bear. We don’t do the job to put rapists and murderers on the street but to ensure that we at least try and do what is right and ensure justice is done. Hannah is right, we did not enter the profession for the money, but we do expect and perhaps deserve to be paid enough to make the job viable.

The Bar have waged a good campaign of opposition to the proposals made by the Ministry of Justice on cuts to funding. Solicitors put up a good campaign on the issue of choice for clients, we have been less coherent on cuts to fees and the “consolidation of the market”. This is an area where differing groups of solicitors do not agree.

Many of the bar are rightly regarded as experts in their profession, and much of the new talent is attracted to the Bar for that reason. The Bar deal with the most serious cases that come before the courts; the more complex, the more newsworthy and the ones that capture the imagination and horror of the public more frequently. A properly funded and supported Bar is vital to ensuring that these cases attract bright, young talent to ensure the vitality and diversity of the bar necessary to do these cases justice in every sense of the word.

Yet the Bar is not, and nor should it be the sole repository of all the talent and expertise in the profession. Solicitors, regarded by some as the junior profession possess a great deal of talent, commitment and expertise displayed across the country on a daily basis in police stations, courts and offices. All criminal cases start life at the Magistrates Court, and a very large proportion of those start life in the police station with a suspect under arrest, facing a police officer across a table with a few witness statements that are have the power to change their life in a very real way spread out before them. The advice the solicitor gives at that time, often late at night or in the small hours is crucial. It is something I have tried to instil in those I have had responsibility of training across the years, cases are more often than they think won or lost in that harried process of getting disclosure, instructions and giving advice. It’s not just an interview to get through, it’s what goes to the heart of what we do.

The decisions taken at the Magistrates Court, the information gleaned from those same statements and taken from the client when there are six other people to see and the bench are itching to get on will fundamentally shape the way the client is dealt with.

We are, as solicitors, at the front end of the process. We are the ones that answer the phones at 2am to an anxious Mother whose son has breached his bail and who has two officers on her doorstep wanting to arrest him. We are the ones that liase between the client, the bailiff, the Doctor, Social Worker and any number of other professionals that the clients cannot or do not want to engage with in their hectic lives. We are the ones that spend the time reassuring the family man, who has never been in trouble before, who after working twelve hours nodded off at the wheel of his car causing an accident that sees him facing court for dangerous driving and facing loss of his job and loss of family home.

Like the Bar we do this against the reality of ever decreasing fees both in real terms and in respect of what work we are even paid for. Whole parts of the job we do is now simply not paid, or is covered by a fixed fee at such a level that it may as well not be paid. Hours are spent waiting in police stations and courts that we cannot claim for. Hearings are adjourned because there is no interpreter, no time and even no court to allow the case to be heard. The Lord Chancellor wants to cut those fees even further.

The preservation of the bar is important but so is the preservation of the criminal defence solicitor at all levels and from a diverse background. There are so very few firms able to offer training contracts and even fewer able to offer places to their trainees if they can offer a contract. The brightest and most able young lawyers don’t want to do publicly funded work. Many can’t afford to, yoked to the debts they have from their degree and LPC courses.

What is clear is that any cuts will result in a loss of large numbers of solicitors no longer doing criminal defence work, either through choice or through necessity. They will lose their jobs as a result of their firms no longer offering criminal defence work or because the bank manager simply does not see them as a viable business anymore. I already know personally of friends and colleagues across the country who have decided to give it up, some by choice opting for early retirement and of some having it imposed upon them. I blogged last year that these cuts represent an extinction event for the profession as we know it. Chris Grayling has made it clear that despite the warnings, the concerns and the very real alternatives proposed to him he intends to press on regardless.

The future of the Bar is and perhaps always has been inextricably linked to the so called junior profession. It’s where their instructions are derived from and whilst there has been a rise in the number of HCA over the years, where the Bars work will still continue to come from. I and others in my profession have instructed the junior bar for low fees to conduct trials and hearings and no doubt will continue to do so. The fees are low because we are paid low fees in the first place, if as a profession we could pay more I have no doubt that we would. It is these cases that the junior bar use as a training ground for their advocacy, it is these cases that help forge the relationship between the solicitor and counsel. Certainly for me this is how I have forged some of my most enduring relationships with counsel and gone on to brief them on ever more serious and complicated cases in the Crown Court and beyond. It is these relationships that will be at risk if the smaller firms go to the wall under the proposed cuts.

We stand side by side as professions working for our clients. We need to continue to stand side by side to protect our clients from these cuts and the impact it will have on them against a Government and a Lord Chancellor who simply chooses to ignore the reality of what he is doing.

Advertisements

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.

thca0lo88k

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.

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

bigstock-Dark-spooky-forest-with-silhou-42225886-1

“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.

Time to listen…

images-26

As the deadline for submitting a response to the Governments legal aid consultation draws nearer, the Lord Chancellor has agreed to meet with members of the profession this week. I would like to think that he may be willing to listen to the arguments put forward and see the sense behind the opposition to his proposals. That he would understand that the financial basis of the reforms are based on figures that are out of date. That the real consequences of the proposed reforms will be a downward slide in the quality of advice given, which may very well cost more money in the long run.

Sadly, I am less than convinced that this will happen, and the meeting is simply an exercise in public relations.

His department have made it clear that there will be significant cuts made, that the model of price competitive tendering has been deemed as the way forward; and opposition is simply the attempt of the profession to save it’s own skin.

Joshua Rozenberg reported last week on one of the engagement meetings run by the Ministry of Justice and concluded that the Ministry are open-minded as to proposals for the reforms on Legal Aid.

The head of legal policy at the Ministry stated, “We appreciate that the proposals are causing deep concern and people have genuine worries about aspects of the model. That’s why we genuinely want to hear from people. I know people often think that responding to government consultations is a waste of time. All I would say to you is that we want to hear your views. We want to hear your suggestions.”

What was not made clear from that statement is that the consultation paper does not ask for proposals, suggestions and comments on the issue as to whether PCT is the rights way forward. It seeks suggestions as to the best way of allocating clients, the nature of the procurement areas and so forth. There is implicit in the document that PCT is going to be imposed regardless.

That is why as a profession there is so much concern, so much anxiety. The model for PCT proposed does not guarantee quality, does not ensure that rights are protected and fails to recognise the difficulties and peculiar nature of the provision of criminal advice and representation.

I am concerned that the consultation exercise is a waste of time, that the responses given will make little difference to the eventual outcome. I have this concern because the department and Chris Grayling has very recent form for ignoring the views and evidence put before him in a consultation document.

In the foreword to the departments response to the consultation on Reform on Judicial Review published within days of the legal aid conference he said,

“Last year, I published an engagement exercise which sought views on a series of proposals for reform of Judicial Review. The need for reform was driven by concern about the growth in the use of Judicial Review and the delays these proceedings create, in some cases frustrating plans for growth.

There was a body of support for my proposals, mainly among businesses and public authorities. But most of the responses we received were opposed to reform. There was criticism of the consultation procedure and the lack of evidence, and some saw the proposals as a serious attack on the rule of law.

I do not accept these criticisms.”

That consultation had twenty seven named contributors, all of whom had either a vested conmercial interest in judicial review being removed or being strictly limited, the ones he listened to. Or they worked with groups for whom judicial review was the last resort, those he ignored.

It is against that background that we seek to persuade him that the proposals put forward are wrong. The proposals are based on figures that do not take into account the significant reductions already made in the criminal legal aid spend, on bold assertions of fat cat lawyers making millions from the hard work of normal people, fail to evidence where the public have lost faith in the system.

Politics is I am sure a difficult game, and a balance needs to be acheived in what is done. Somethings I believe are too important for politics and the principles of justice, access to justice and a lawyer of your choice is one of them.

I hope my colleagues can persuade Mr Grayling of this later. In the meantime we can all send him a message…

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)

The person behind the file…

 

 

Picss

The pile of files sitting on my desk at the moment represent to me the cases I have to deal with in the next forty-eight hours. For the people whose name is on the front of those files they represent a critical point in their lives. How I deal with those files, what work I do and how I present their cases could make a real difference in the outcome for them.

My first senior partner was an old school lawyer in every sense of the word. He was from a fortunate background which meant he didn’t need to work, and probably hadn’t needed to work for the nearly forty years he had been qualified. He didn’t need to turn out at 2am on a Sunday morning but he still regularly did.

I once asked him why he still flogged away at the coal face and he told me that he felt he had a moral imperative to speak up for those who could not themselves. He said clients would come to me to discuss their problems, their issues and put them all in an untidy pile on the desk in front of you. As their lawyer it was my job to try to sort through those problems, those messy issues and as far as I could make sure that the pile of problems and issues they took away were at least a bit tidier and a bit smaller when they went away.

As a legal aid lawyer this is what I have always tried to do; this is what in my experience my colleagues, friends and other legal aid lawyers try to do on a daily basis up and down the country. It may not always be appreciated, it certainly doesn’t pay well and it drives the accountants mad.

We are not angels, we are not crusaders, we are not all morally blind liberals. We just understand that clients should have a choice in who they put their trust in, who they want to make their problems a little more manageable. Quality advice makes a difference to the client, to the victim and to all concerned. We are committed to providing a quality service that we can be proud of.

This is what Chris Grayling is taking away, this is what he is trying to dismantle in favour of a cheap, efficient and acceptable service. This is why I and thousands like me have signed the petition against the reforms, why I submitted a response to the consultation and wrote to my MP warning him of the dangers.

If you want the right to choose the lawyer that will care about the name on the front of the file then please do the same. If you want the profession to wither on the vine then don’t do anything at all, sit back and hope someone else does something.

As lawyers we stand up every day and plead our clients cases, we ask for understanding of what they have done, we argue their case because they can’t.

As the MoJ prepares further spin, as the BFG explains why they are best placed to represent the needs of your clients, as the Law Society placate the MoJ with compromise, take a moment to remember it is the name on the front of the file that got you interested in doing it in the first place. All we do is measured against that.

#saveukjustice petition

Contact your MP

Online Consultation Response

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)

The price of everything, the value of nothing…

money_2196794b

Let me make one thing very clear from the outset, I and my colleagues increasingly vocal opposition to the proposed reforms to criminal legal aid have nothing to do with the risk it poses to mine and their lifestyle, the loss of our jobs and incomes. We all appreciate that we do not hold any high position in society that means we are entitled to a job for life.

Our opposition is to the very real loss of access to justice, choice and fearless representation that will inevitably follow if these proposals are allowed to go ahead. The loss of protections afforded to the people that need it the most and because we see these proposals as a further step down the road to the end of a justice system that is rightly regarded as one of the best in the world. My concern is that these proposals will simply be nodded through without any real consideration of the long term effects and once in place will become almost irreversible.

Of greater concern is the lack of general awareness to the whole issue by the general public as to how it may affect them and the fact that they are being fed an argument that I initially thought was ill-conceived but now believe is intentionally misleading.

Examine the various press releases over the past few months that have come from Chris Grayling, nowhere does he refer to persons appearing in court as defendants or the accused. Instead he uses the term criminal, criminals and offenders. He refers to legal aid as profligate, lawyers as racking up huge fees for cases that run on and on, that the system is the most costly in the world, that the hard-working public pay for legal aid and that they (the public) have lost confidence in the system. In this way any attempt to amend the proposals, any opposition to the proposals by lawyers appears to be an attempt to preserve our own little fiefdom.

It does not matter that the figures used in the consultation are over a year old and no consideration is made to the reductions in the budget already achieved by a lowering of fees, the downturn in work through the courts. It does not matter that the huge fees are incurred in a very small number of cases dealing with the most serious of crimes, including terrorism and the like. These cases will always exist, these cases will always cost vast sums of money, and if you are charged with an offence then you must have a right to defend yourself and if you cannot afford to pay then there must be a way for the state to provide you with that right. You can’t have “Justice Light” for those people you don’t like or don’t want.

The argument that we have the most costly legal aid system in the world is and always has been a red herring. You cannot compare systems across the world and say that one is cheaper without highlighting the differences in approach. We have an adversarial approach which means the work is done by lawyers, in an inquisitorial system the work is done by the Judges. It costs the same amount of money; it’s just put against a different budget.

In my opinion these reforms will not have any effect on restoring public confidence in legal aid, far from it. The eventual effect will be dissolution in the reputation of the profession and the belief that justice has been disregarded in favour of price. The real problem is that affording “criminals” rights to a defence and a choice if it costs money is simply not an attractive proposition and that as a member of the public no-one believes it can ever happen to them.

Access to justice is not just about catching the bad man and punishing them. Justice is about the righting of wrongs, of balancing the scales and of ensuring what is right is done. Access to justice means that the single Mum has the ability to properly fight for contact with her children. Access to justice means that a decision by a body of state can be challenged by anyone and their views heard and explored. Access to justice allows the recently dismissed shop worker the right to have advice as to whether he was sacked lawfully without having to worry about the cost. Access to justice means that the prisoner serving a sentence can challenge the decision of the parole board to not release him as he has not completed the courses necessary when they are not available to him. Access to justice means that those accused of a crime can approach a lawyer of his choice who knows him, understands him and wants to properly advance his case. Access to justice means that a man accused of a crime can take advice from a lawyer he trusts and respects to give him the right advice and enter a plea in a timely fashion.

On 1 April the reductions in legal aid entitlement set out in LASPO came into effect, removing at a stroke legal aid from a huge number of people. These cuts were opposed by me and others and received debate time in parliament. The coming few months will show just how damaging cutting legal aid can be as those cuts bite.

On 9 April 2013 the Ministry of Justice announced further cuts in the proposal document “Transforming Legal Aid”. These proposals will not have any debate time in parliament; these cuts don’t need legislation to implement. These cuts herald an extinction event for the criminal profession and the rights to access to justice. There is still time to try and avoid the damage these proposals will make. We need as a profession to stand together and not protect our own self interests. The proposals, together with the QASA proposals are designed to set Counsel against Solicitor. If we don’t stand together then we risk being written off as simply lobby groups. We need as a profession to highlight these proposals to the public; to let them know what is at risk, we need to show that the Government know the price of everything but the value of nothing.

Do not be fooled by the use of the word consultation. A consultation involves a dialogue, a discussion between interested parties, at the end of which you will hopefully reach an agreed way forward. This is not a consultation; a decision has already been made as to how the MOJ will proceed. What is being consulted on is the manner of the demise. The current process is a sop, a necessary delay in order to ensure there are no available challenges to the policies to be implemented.
If evidence is needed of this take a look at how the response questions are worded. There is no question asking whether PCT is an appropriate way forward, no questions seeking a viable alternative or whether cuts themselves are even necessary. In essence it’s akin to asking the chicken “Would you prefer Sage and Onion, or Lemon and Thyme?” Either way the chicken is going to be stuffed.

Consider also the recommendations contained within the Carter Review of Legal Aid in 1996. All of the primary recommendations with the exception of BVT and Single Case Fees have been implemented. It is these two proposals that form the basis of this consultation.

Although there are a number of worrying proposals within the document the biggest and the one that will have the greatest effect is PCT, or Price Competitive Tendering. That will mean providers bid against each other to provide advice at the police station, and representation for all litigation in the Magistrates and Crown Court at a fixed price per case. Inevitably the lowest bids in each area will be awarded a contract for a minimum period of three years, extendable to five.
The Government believe that market forces can be made to apply to anything from the bulk purchase of hammers to the provision of professional advice. The problem is buying a bulk load of hammers is quite a different proposition to the purchase of professional advice. Sometimes market forces simply cannot be left to decide how something is provided, and particularly when the Government are the purchaser.

More pertinently the Government don’t want market forces to decide how and at what price criminal legal aid is provided, hence the need for the Government to “rig” the market in the first place.

If pricing were left exclusively to the market then as a whole the price would go up, we would no longer work for the current pay rates as it does not reflect the cost of doing the work we do. We already work at a significantly lower rate than we used to and that we could charge.

So the Government need to set a price cap, a maximum amount of money they will pay for the services to be provided. They have set that cap at a rate 17.5% less than the current fee structure. This is to prevent the providers holding the Government hostage on price. So already providers have even less incentive to bid for the work. In order to make it worthwhile the second stage is to cap the number of providers in any given area and then guarantee those with a contract a certain percentage of the available work. What was a free market with anyone able to compete and offer their services is now a closed market with a price cap. The proposed system does not allow for growth, it does not allow for new entrants, it encourages stagnation and the slow inexorable demise of the independent profession.

At the present time there are approximately 1600 contracts for the provision of criminal legal aid, serviced at one end of the spectrum by sole practitioners working from the spare bedroom, to at the other end very large firms with multiple offices servicing large geographical areas. This means that the Legal Aid Agency have supplier relationships with each provider which creates paperwork and administration, which in turn costs money. Under the present system as long as the contract provider meets the necessary quality criteria and can fulfil contractual requirements then they are able to carry out publically funded work.

Quality criteria is important, it means on a most basic level that the person you see is being audited, that someone is happy with their ability to provide the advice and representation you need. More importantly reputational quality is in the current system a massively important benchmark. You may be able to fill forms out and pass tick box audits but if you are no good in court, give poor advice and achieve bad results due to lack of ability or commitment then who would instruct you? Conversely, if you are good at what you do, show commitment and understanding to your client and are able to provide a consistently excellent service then your reputation will increase and inevitably you will get more work. Clients will choose to come to you, and will avoid the others. This is where at present the market is deciding.

In the new regime there will be 400 contracts conducted by a lot less than 400 providers. There will be no sole practitioners, there will be no niche specialists; they will no longer be able to survive let alone be in a position to bid for a contract. Instead there will be large firms and in time national providers such as G4S, Serco et al. The High Street lawyer will no longer exist. I do not think that the large multi-national public service companies will come in on the first bid round. They will want to see how it all works out, and whether there will be a further reduction in supplier base. I do think they will come in, perhaps on the next contract when the Government introduce a full public defender service run by one of those companies, after all they could then operate a full cradle to grave service; investigated by them, represented by them at court and rehabilitated by them at a prison or a probation centre. The justice system as we know it will then truly be dead.

Smaller firms will be unable to bid due to constraints on budget, logistics and so forth and the cost of scaling up. Larger firms may not bid, as the bid price will not be worthwhile. Legal Aid partners at law firms have a hard enough time justifying their existence on the margins we currently operate; imagine taking that discussion to a share-holders meeting. More importantly is the restrictions the regime will have on the growth of a firm or provider. If you are guaranteed no more than a percentage of the work available in any given area then the only way to increase that percentage share would be for a further reduction in the number of suppliers. It’s something that simply cannot happen if there is to be true independence and avoid the unavoidable client conflicts. Further, you can’t rely on repeat business or recommendation. Cases will be allocated on a rota basis at the police station, own client ceases to exist.

As I mentioned above the need to provide quality advice and representation now is implicit in what we do. A client will never instruct us if we are no good at the job. In the proposed regime the issue of quality is a concern. Once a provider has a contract, they have it for three or five years. Whilst certain quality controls may have been tested initially where is the imperative to ensure they are upheld? After all the work can’t be given to someone else, there will be no-one. I have no doubt that I and my colleagues will continue to work as we do and provide the quality of service that is to be expected by our clients.

That doesn’t mean that quality will not fall, budgets need to be kept, and targets met, that is bound to place pressures on what is done, and large new corporate ABS providers may not operate to the same standard The Government is aware of this and it is mentioned in the impact assessments. As a lawyer doing criminal work now it is insulting to think that someone believes I do not give anything other than 100% effort and commitment to my job or that I would not continue to do so.
In order to guarantee a percentage share of the work available in any given geographical area the new proposals do away with “own client” work. No longer will a client be able to choose who represents them at the police station or at the court if they want publically funded legal aid. This is a huge move and one that fundamentally attacks the principles of access to justice. More importantly, when set against the stated aims of the proposals to introduce efficiencies and cost savings to the fund it makes absolutely no sense. Yet without doing away with client choice, the issue of price competitive tendering cannot exist.

A client at the police station will be allocated to a provider if they ask for a solicitor. The proposed basis of allocation gives some indication as to how ridiculous this measure is. The consultation asks whether the clients should be allocated on initials, month they were born, sequentially, or on a rota basis. What happens if the client simply wanders into the office, as they so often do now, how can the Government ensure that one provider only does their percentage share of work.

The reality is that many clients are regulars, or they know a regular, or they have a friend of a friend etc. They trust the lawyer they choose to represent them and to give them advice. In that way I am able to tell my client, and he will trust me and believe me, that the game is up and he should plead to the particular allegation he faces that day.

I also know which one of my clients have mental health issues, have an alcohol or drug dependence, have a particularly difficult home life. I am able to use this information in their best interests and because I know them and they trust me I can put this information to the court quickly and effectively. If Mr X meets four different lawyers in four different cases of shop theft within a space of a week then he will need to tell each one his life history, many clients are reluctant to give information and only do so after a period of time. He may receive a sentence that is not right and more importantly there will be four separate fees. Under the current regime it would be clear those four thefts in a series of offences but only one case and therefore only one fee at court.

I have worked hard to build my reputation, as have my colleagues. A good lawyer, trusted by his client will always do a job quicker and more effectively and a client is more likely to accept the hard straight forward advice that is sometimes needed. A relationship built on trust between a client and his solicitor means that there is less chance of a pointless trial, less chance of clogging the system and more chance that justice is not only done but seen to be done by both the client and the victim.

It is bad enough now to try and convince some clients picked up as “duty solicitor” that I am independent of the police. With others there is the belief that the “duty solicitor” is not a proper solicitor and they will use me just until they can contact their usual brief. Imagine how these clients will feel when the only solicitors attending the police station are “duty solicitors” allocated to them on hair colour.

Finally, on this point, “Access to justice should not be determined by your ability to pay…” the opening remark from the consultation document. How can this possibly be held to be true and be believed if only those who can afford to instruct a lawyer of their choice are able to do so?

This blog has concentrated on the issues facing solicitors and the consultation process. There are equally dramatic effects proposed to the Bar and further reductions in their remuneration rates which I won’t cover here simply because I do not want to make this as long as the consultation.

There is one striking proposal that I do want to comment on, the reduction of pay the same fee for a short trial as a guilty plea. This is a dangerous proposal as far as public perception is concerned, and frankly downright offensive to suggest that clients are advised to plead not guilty simply to increase income. I have never met a barrister yet who has advised my client to plead not guilty just to get a trial fee. Please take the time to consider the blogs, articles and press releases put out by the CBA.

For a very long time we as lawyers at all levels have made the system work with our goodwill and hard work for diminishing returns and yet we all turn up to work and continue to do the job. Why? The answer is simple; we truly believe that access to justice is so much more than an ability to pay, that every person has a right to the best possible representation and that cheap and “efficient” is rarely synonymous with value and commitment.

If you are a lawyer of any branch of the profession speak to your clients, let them know what is going on and how they can respond. The Government may procure your services but the client is the one who needs your services. Nobody likes the idea of spending public money on “criminals” until they are the one who find themselves in a police station at 3am and the only friendly face is the lawyer willing to listen.

Sign the petition, write to your MP, write to your Police and Crime Commissioner and respond to the consultation. We are not just a foolish, noisy minority…we provide a voice for all of those who can’t speak for themselves.