Legal Aid Reform

Access to legal aid is one of the fundamentals of the British legal system. An essential right afforded to all those who find themselves, whether through fault of their own or fault of another, in a vulnerable situation. Professional representation and expert advice, from someone you are contented to represent you, and whom you trust, is essential in these circumstances.

Chris Grayling in line with the cuts from George Osborne has proposed reforms that will ‘revolutionise’ the criminal justice system.  The reforms intend to, amongst other aspects; deprive the defendant the selection of a lawyer of their choice, and introduce Price Competitive Tendering (PCT) for legal aid contracts. In not just my opinion, but that of the Bar Standards Board, (BSB) Law Society and senior QC’s, it will undermine Britain’s international reputation for upholding justice.

The first aspect of the new system is that it will adversely affect access to justice for some of the most vulnerable, and socially excluded groups in society. Sir Anthony Hooper QC, who retired as a Court of Appeal judge, recently stated that “people with a disability would not be able to choose a lawyer who understood their condition.” This is potentially a very serious problem for those who suffer from mental health complications, or repeat offenders who trust their chosen solicitor to understand them. The proposals will, in effect, force vulnerable people to settle for representation that they do not trust nor know. The potential for increased miscarriages of justice is immeasurable. Dinah Rose QC of Blackstone chambers stated that “Squeezing out decent criminal practitioners will… inevitably lead to miscarriages of justice. Meanwhile, the government protects itself from effective challenge by restricting legal aid for Judicial Review.”

The other side of the story however is just as compelling, if not misguided, in my opinion. Disabling the current culture and introducing PCT will curb the fees that specialist firms receive from Legal Aid. The Daily Mail recently ran an article on the fees that firms and barristers receive. It stated that Michael C Clare and Oliver Blunt QC ‘raked’ in a combined income of £830,107 last year and specialist firms such as Howells LLP billed nearly £6 million of taxpayers’ money. The issue with these figures should be apparent from the fact the Daily Mail reported them. The figures quoted in the article are accumulated due to delay in legal aid payments, and are a build-up of three years of back payments, paid all at once. Even if the figures are unreasonably high, this is not a wide spread epidemic of overpaid criminal barrister’s and deceitful firms. These are isolated incidents. I agree its isolated incidents involving huge amounts of money, but isolated nonetheless. A running comment at Bar school was that ‘crime definitely does not pay.’ A friend of mine, recently secured pupillage in a criminal set after 5 years of legal training and over £40,000 of debt, to earn just  £12,000 a year. She could have had a child and earnt that watching repeats on Dave.

Firms of solicitors and specialist barristers will also be affected, alongside the clients that they represent. Many firms specialise in certain areas, whether that be criminal defence work or dealing with niche clients. The introduction of PCT will intensify the situation for those niche firms, who have strived to build their specialist reputation. There is a founded fear that firms who have not diversified into numerous areas will ‘disappear of the face of the earth.’ The argument that tendering for work will reduce the cost paid to criminal firms is one aspect, however, these firms will be replaced my companies such as G4S, who will be able to provide the services for far less, but with far less expertise. The culling of large dedicated firms and the introduction of larger non-expert firms will only go to irreparably damaging Britain’s reputation for excellence in the legal field.

The element that I am struggling to understand however is the consultation process that devised these plans. Chris Grayling is the first Lord Chancellor not to have been a lawyer since time immemorial. As far as my understanding goes, no lawyers have been consulted regarding the proposals. As a colleague of mine puts it, it is ‘akin to failing to consult doctors or nurses about changes within the NHS’ or asking a plumber to re-wire your house.

There has also been discussion, with which I do not agree, that the proposed reforms will create a situation where solicitors and barristers suddenly forget the concepts of justice and decency. Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, President of the Law Society, warned that the Government’s “destructive” plan would create a rift between clients and lawyers. She is of the belief that, as lawyers will get paid the same regardless of the length of the trial; it “puts the interest of the defendant and the lawyer in conflict with each other.” The general feeling that lawyers will sell their clients to the stocks in order to process the next legal aid payment.

I disagree with this attitude entirely. I decide to study the law, firstly, because I was told that my upbringing and process through the state school system would hinder me from one of the hardest professions to crack into. I took that as a direct challenge. But secondly, because I believe in the concept of justice for all. By being in the position of responsibility over those who are in need of your advice and expertise, necessitates that you will do your very best for that person, regardless of the payment in return.

It is true that we have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world, but with a right cause. We have one of the most respected legal professions in the world. There is no evading the simple fact that these proposals would move us from having a justice system which is respected. To a system where price undermines all. PCT may achieve short-term savings for Chris Grayling to parade, but as Sir Anthony states; ‘it is a blunt instrument that will leave deep cuts on our justice system for far longer.”

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2 Comments

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