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.