Government plans legal system overhaul

I am writing today about this issue in the hope that you will support the cause and forward this information on to help  in countering the government plans to radically overhaul the criminal justice system. Your support is essential if we are to maintain the finest legal system in the world and which is relied upon by other countries as a model and benchmark for their own reforms. It is what protects us all from abuse by the state and powerful organisations.

The Government are attempting to implement radical changes to the criminal justice system in what it claims is necessary to reduce costs.

I disagree with need for change and whilst nobody can deny the need to cut costs, there is certainly no room for maneuver where legal aid is concerned. Efficiencies in other areas can quite easily achieve the saving the government are after.

If you agree then please sign the petition:          http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/48628

To first dispel a few myths:

  1. We earn way too much already don’t we?

Actually the average criminal legal aid lawyer earns only slightly more than the national average yet works with some of the most dangerous and difficult members of society. Our clients can be violent, aggressive, confused and when we are called upon to deal with them it is usually at one of the most stressful times of their lives thus compounding the issues we have to face.

Some of our clients are drug addicts, some cannot read or write, some are dangerous sexual predators, some are filthy and often sick, sometimes are clients are children living in care or worse still living rough; we do not get to chose. The job requires us to be available for our clients 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year. We cannot plan when they may need our help.

Most of the work we do is paid on a fixed fee basis, allow me to cite an example:

If we are called out to the police station to represent someone accused of rape or murder or child molestation, it may be the middle of the night or on Christmas day, it doesn’t matter, we get paid the same fixed fee of less than £200 regardless of how long we spend at the police station. That fee gets paid to the firm out of which wages, rent, insurance and other general expenses have to be taken and often the overall profit is less than £10 per case. compare this to the fee you had to pay when you needed a plumber for a boiler breakdown during the winter or when you lost your keys and needed a lock smith to come out in an emergency. The money you will have paid to them is largely all profit and I bet you couldn’t even get them to come out until the morning or following day, we do not have that luxury, we have to go when called.

  1. What does it matter, they’re all guilty anyway?

98% of our clients actually plead guilty and so we are not defending the guilty most of the time. If we were not there to advise them on the strength of the evidence then they are more likely to try to defend themselves which would result in more contested trial, (at huge unnecessary cost) and the risk would be that in all cases and sex offence cases particularly, the accused would be cross-examining his victim.

Believe it or not, not all our clients are guilty, sometimes the witnesses lie and even the police have been known to on occasion. Sometimes the judge gets it wrong and imposes an unlawful penalty. These issues can only be adequately addressed through the employ of good quality lawyers. By forming relationships with our clients and understanding the issues behind their offending we can work with other agencies to effect the most appropriate sentence for our clients which if left to the police and judges alone may lead to even greater levels of re-offending.

A lot of our clients are children or vulnerable adults, living in care or on the streets. They get into trouble, often out of desperation or through no fault of their own. Without our involvement they are destined for a life of drugs and crime. We get to know these people, understand them and address their problems. We work through the courts with other agencies to try to ensure our clients get the help they need to be able to lead a more productive and crime free life.

We perform a social service which goes way beyond what the general public understand of the criminal defence lawyer and it is a vitally important service for that matter. This is often not what a lawyer expects to get involved with but it is an unintended yet inherent part of the job we do.

  1. So why am I asking for your help?

In short the government want to do the following:

Reduce the number of criminal law firms from 1600 to 400. Ten years ago there were over 4000 criminal law firms;
Reduce the rates currently payable by a minimum of 17.5% and require us to submit our lowest fee to bid for the work;
Refuse to allow the client to choose his/her own lawyer, instead the client will be allocated a lawyer by reference to a rota;

If this happens there will be insufficient lawyers to properly address the issues. Criminal lawyers will become like McDonalds, churning out the most amount of cases in the cheapest and quickest way. McDonalds does the job when you’re hungry but you wouldn’t go there on a first date if it was really important. The same can be said of criminal law, most of the time it won’t matter, the client will be guilty and the Judge will make the right decision but this isn’t good enough – What if a young mother is charged with murdering her child and the police doctor gets the medical evidence wrong but the lawyer doesn’t have the time within his fixed fee to explore his clients version of events more thoroughly and there is no money for a defence expert? What if the police lie because they have a grudge, what if a jilted lover cries rape? The examples can go on and we MUST have a system in place that properly protects the innocent, it is not OK that one innocent man goes to prison just so 10 guilty men also do.

I explained a little about the relationship a criminal lawyer has with his/her client, the benefit of this relationship will be lost if client choice is taken away and the consequences above will inevitably follow.

If client choice is removed and the successful 400 firms are simply allocated work on a rota basis where are the incentives to provide a quality service. The client has no choice so who cares what he/she thinks of the service we provide. I cannot think of any situation more dangerous. Large organizations will bid for contracts at rock bottom prices and then employ the cheapest labour they can get their hands on. The ethos of the company will be to do as little work as possible on each case in order to maximize the profits.

What’s worse is that the government have openly said that they do not require a high quality service and so client choice which would ordinarily wean out the poor providers is irrelevant. As a tax payer would you be happy to fund a service that is less than satisfactory for purpose.

I and many of my colleagues cannot conceive of a situation whereby the client will become nothing more than an item to trade: Get the client in and then get him out again as quick as possible and get paid. We are not market traders!!!!