By the light of a dying star…

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“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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Abandonment and Abduction of Hansel & Gretel – Part 2

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As before a collaboration with @bruce2990 – Read Part 1

http://criminaltales.wordpress.com/2011/10/05/the-abandonment-and-abduction-of-hansel-gretel/

The keys rattled and the big blue door swung open as @crimsolicitor was let into the custody block for what was the fifth time that day.   The smell always caught him as he came round the corner.  Every custody block has its own special blend of a very familiar smell; unwashed people, smelly shoes, microwave curries and the cheap air freshener they use to hide all the smells.

“Did you get far then?”

“Far enough to be annoying…” said @crimsolicitor.

It was one of the few pleasures the Detention Officers had.  Let you leave the station and then call you back almost straight away.   Bonus points are awarded if the lawyer managed to get all the way home, and then call them back, and extra points if you managed to time it right so that they didn’t even manage to get out of their car.

“Suppose you want another brew then?  Custody records are just printing off.”

“Please, proper tea, not that rubbish you serve to the guests.  Whose dealing with these two.”

“Dunno, someone from CID and Child Protection.  I think Gruff was about before.

“Thanks, can you tell him I’m here.  I’m sure he wants to go home, he usually does…”

The block was quite busy, with a steady turnaround of the usual stuff.  Thirteen hours into a twenty-four hour slot @crimsolicitor had dealt with six other so far, all of whom had now gone.   Now, at eleven o’clock at night the block was beginning to fill back up.  There were two sergeants at the desk, each with a prisoner, and another in the holding cell.   In front of one stood a tall man, military bearing.  One of the Kings’s Men brought in as part of the ongoing investigation into what really happened to Humpty Dumpty on that wall.

The other, a slightly shorter, older man in a very expensive suit was having an argument with the Sergeant.

“I want to see my solicitor in person, get me Mr Rumpole her now, I don’t want to talk to him on the phone.  That’s ridiculous, who made up that rule.”

The Sergeant, who was well used to his guests getting a bit chopsy and apparently knowing their human rights, sighed.   “Well, wasn’t me that’s for sure.  You are of course entitled to speak to a solicitor who will give you free and independent advice.  However, as you are here for a non-imprisonable offence then at this stage you only get telephone advice.  I’m sure whoever speaks to you will be fully trained to speak to you.”

“Trained, I don’t want trained.  I want qualified and I want them to know what’s going on.  How do I know that the person that speaks to me knows what he is doing, and isn’t just one of you upstairs.  I’m a very important man you know.”

“We are all important men sir, and I’m afraid that it’s unlikely that you will even speak to Mr Rumpole, initially it will be an advisor from the call centre.  Of course, if you want to pay him privately, we can get hold of Mr Rumpole directly.”

“That’s madness, so I’m entitled to have legal advice, free of charge but only on the phone and not from my own lawyer?”

“At present yes, soon that rule might apply to anybody who is arrested not just for those that are here for minor offences.”

“That really is just the thin end of the wedge, next you will be telling me I have to pay for a lawyer in court!”

One of the Detention Officers handed @crimsolicitor the custody records for his clients, “Government Minister apparently, been chucking his papers all over The Great Woods when he was taking his morning constitutional.  Arrested for littering under the “Take Your Confidential Waste Home And Shred It Act” .   Bit’s of paper everywhere.     The Bears were not amused at all apparently, been phoning into Chief Constable all day, wanting to know why there are so few police on the street.  Burgled they were few months back and now this.   Chief explained that it was due to cut backs, had to prioritise resources but they were not happy I can tell you.”

The Custody Sergeant turned in his seat and looked at @crimsolicitor.

“You doing both of them are you?  Isn’t that a conflict, Husband and Wife?”

“I can’t tell until I speak with them can I?  If there is I will let you know don’t worry.”

“Won’t make any difference anyway, you will only tell ’em to make no comment.”

“You know that’s wrong Sergeant, I can’t make anyone do anything they don’t want to.  If I did, do you think I would be hanging round police stations for £150 a case.  If there is a conflict then I will make sure that someone else covers one of them”

Please don’t let there be a conflict @crimsolicitor thought.  If there was he wasn’t going to get paid for seeing one of them, or worse case, both.

“Well make it snappy then, tick tock custody clock!”

“Not my clock sergeant, you haven’t been waiting for me all day.   Anyway, I’m sure if necessary, the officers can persuade the Inspector to give them more time, after all CID always conduct expeditious investigations, and they haven’t just left my clients to sweat a bit have they”

The sergeant raised an eyebrow and turned back around to deal with the littering Minister.

Taking the custody records with him and his all important mug of tea @crimsolicitor sat in the little consultation room and scanned through the custody records of this clients.   Arrested at ten o’clock this morning that meant they had been in for thirteen hours, but that wasn’t unusual.  Nothing jumped out at him, no health markers to be worried about, no drugs issues and both of them in custody for the first time.  Neither had asked for a telephone call and there was a mark up for a s18 search but nothing marked up.  The record stated that the children had been reported missing by their parents but information was given that they had last been seen taking them out and returning without them.   No immediate harm to life or limb interview done so what did they have to hold them?

Twenty minutes later DC Gruff came down together with another officer @crimsolicitor had never seen before.

@crimsolicitor

“DC Gruff, how are you?

“Busy as ever, you know how it is, budget cuts, red tape and idiots who think they know the job better than us.  Been here for twelve hours so far, and no end in sight at the moment.  That half hour for the Queen becomes longer and longer every day!”

“This is PC Tag from the Child Protection lot,” Gruff said pointing at the officer with him, “She was destined to be a copper, it’s the hair you see?”

@crimsolicitor looked bemused, which was not uncommon.

“See, it’s a coppery ginger, so she had to be a ginger copper!”  Gruff said laughing at his own joke.  Well he had to, no-one else ever did.

“Ignore him, he can’t help it, someone dropped him on his head when he was little.” Turning pointedly to Gruff  “And it’s DC Tag, pleased to meet you”

“So who’s going to tell me what my client’s have done or rather what you think they have done and what you have you been doing for the past thirteen hours?   I assume you haven’t found them yet?”

Gruff sat back in his chair, and started stroking that beard of his.   “There’s no written disclosure on this one right, so pay attention.”

He relayed what had been said by the two defendants in the missing persons report, how Hansel and Gretel had gone off yesterday morning to explore the forest and how when they had not returned by dinner time they had phoned the police.  That the kids were good children and knew what time to be home.     How PC Plod listened to what they said, or rather  what the Mother had said, whilst the Father was looking a bit gormless in the background and kept muttering about Boris and that something seemed a good idea at the time.   They had told him, how they wondered how long they should wait before making a press release appealing for information and whether the newspapers still gave the parents of missing children mobile phones.

PC Plod had listened to all of that and taken it all down, whilst thinking just what he needed a couple of kids missing in the forest.  They  probably weren’t missing at all,  just drinking cider and smoking weed.   Still he took the details down and was just about to come back to the police station when he was accosted by a neighbour with the biggest mouth he had ever seen, he says, mouth like a Cheshire Cat.   Anyway, this neighbour Cheryl or Cherry or something.”

“Cheri” DC Tag said.

“Whatever, names not important, she said that the lot of them went out yesterday morning with a picnic basket and the cat, but only your two came back in later.  She thought that was funny because she likes cats does Cheri and wondered where it had gone.   She didn’t think much else of it after that,  as she saw the cat last night in her garden with a patent shoe apparently stuck up its whatnot.  This morning she sees Plod, asks him whats going on and he tells her about kids going missing”

“So you have no idea what happened then, and they could be just missing.  Are you searching the woods?”

“Of course we are, we’re not bloody daft you know.   We’ve had a team out looking all day, all special every one of them.   But it’s dark now, and we can’t afford batteries for the torches so they are probably packing up now but we will start again tomorrow.”

“What about the house, you searched it?  Did you find anything.”

“Well, we didn’t find any bodies if that’s what you mean.   Nothing really, although PC Plod says there wasn’t a lot of food in the place and he saw a lot of bills.”

“So what’s your thinking at the moment”

“I don’t know yet but I smell something bad here and I’m going to get to the bottom of it.”

“Something bad?” said DC Tag, “Are you sure you didn’t tread in something left by Wolfie’s goat?”

“Oh very droll, everyone’s a comedian round here!”

“Droll or Troll?” asked @crimsolicitor remembering Gruffs little incident a few months back. DC Tag giggled, as Gruff opened the door, “I’ll get your clients shall go?”

@crimsolicitor then sat down to advise his clients.  He told them from the outset what information the police had in relation to the offence they had been arrested for.   How he wasn’t there to make anything up for them, and that if they were to admit anything to him during the consultation that amounted to them being guilty of an offence he couldn’t then help them plead not guilty if the matter went to court.  He also warned them that the police already had one version of events from them, the misper report, and that if what they said now was different then the police might wonder why.  Finally he explained that they did not have to tell the police anything at all, but if they later went to court and then gave a version of events the Judge might tell the jury that their evidence was unreliable.

Dave gave a version of events which was exactly the same as the misper report, but he did keep saying that they didn’t eat that much anyway, and hide and seek was always such a tricky game.

Sam was much confident, “Have they found my darling children yet?  Oh, this is so bad, so bad.  I think I will phone our friends friend when I get out, Adam.  He’s such a clever man, he has lots of experience in lots and lots of things, he offers special advice to some of Dave’s colleagues.   Although I think he’s abroad at the moment.”

Sam asked “What did Dave say what happened?”

@crimsolicitor knew that this was the tricky bit.  He could not tell Sam anything that might help in the two of them making up a story together.  So he did, what he always did in those circumstances, asked Sam to tell him what she said happened and then he could talk about what Dave had said.   To his relief, and that of his billing targets, she gave an account the same as Dave’s.   How the children had gone out yesterday morning to look for conkers in the Enchanted Forest, and they hadn’t come back by tea time like they were supposed to.   She said she was so very worried, as Hansel did like his food, and he had only taken a tuna paste sandwich with him.

On what the two had said, there was no conflict and more to the point if they were right, no offence.   @crimsolicitor advised both clients to give their versions of events, and at the end of the interview it was likely that they would be bailed to come back to the police station.  Until the children were found there was not enough evidence to charge them, even on a threshold test…

After interview, the custody sergeant bailed them both, “No conditions but don’t go leaving the country if you know what I mean”

“Leave the country, of course not my children are missing.  I will not be going anywhere.   You should be out searching for my children, not arresting me and my poor husband.  You know what?  I have no confidence in the Home Secretary to improve the police.”

The Custody sergeant, looked up and shook his head, “You and me both madam, you and me both”

To be continued…