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Letter to justice select committee

Sirs,

Please consider the following concerns of a long practicing criminal defence solicitor and since I only have two minutes to grab your attention please forgive the blunt nature of this exchange:

1. Removal of client choice:

It has to be taken for granted that such restriction on choice will reduce levels of quality. Currently quality is the only method by which we can compete and under the new proposals this will not change.

Choice is important, it is a fundamental human right, it is protected in numerous pieces of legislation. Choice also provides for a much more efficient system because the people who do choose us do so because they trust our judgment and expertise. Consequently they readily accept our advice, tell us their story and help us to help them. This is important because:

a. Cases result in early guilty pleas thus saving court time, money and the ordeal of trials for witnesses;
b. proper mitigation is put forward which allows more effective sentencing which is good for rehabilitation and re-offending rates as well as for the victim who see justice being delivered efficiently;
c. Relationships are developed between client and solicitor which provides for a more effective presentation of cases and in particular motivates the lawyer to work harder and go that extra mile to ensure the above mentioned advantages.

All the above is lost if the lawyer meets the client for the first time and knows they are unlikely to ever meet again. The consequential costs of removal of choice cannot yet be determined but I expect them to be significant.

2. Reduced fees/Conflict of interest:

The government have said they want to shave at least 17.5% off current fees and although we currently work on fixed fees they will be introducing further fixed fees in the magistrates court and this fee will be the same regardless of a guilty plea or a trial, the latter obviously requires a great deal more work.

This is very dangerous indeed because there will become a conflict of interest between what is in the best interest of the lawyers pocket and that of the client. Grayling says this will not be a problem because “professionals” can be relied upon to act in the best interest of their client no matter what. Whilst this may be true it does not really apply to the case in question. The so called “Professionals” he will rely upon will no longer be around. Instead corporate entities will be running defence services for a profit and accountable to shareholders. They will employ the cheapest labour in order to maximize their “fixed fees” and whilst some of the current “professionals” may well go to work for these new entrants to the legal market, it will be only a matter of time before their “managers” bring too much pressure to bear over profit. What will happen is as follows:

Lawyer 1 after a year working for Stobbart’s Barristers has done an average of 8 case per day by ruthlessly convincing his clients top plead guilty and cutting short his plea in mitigation
Lawyer 2 on the other hand only manages an average of 4 cases per day in the same year. Lawyer 2 is called in to his managers office and sacked for under-performing despite his protests that he spends as much time on his feet as lawyer 1, it’s just that lawyer 1 doesn’t say enough for his client and refuses on financial grounds to take anything to trial or appeal.

It may not matter in 90% of cases because the client will be guilty, the sentence imposed will be the right one but can we allow such a system to exist which will inevitably result innocent people being forced to plead guilty by profit hungry lawyers and when miscarriages of justice cannot be addressed due to financial concerns?

The criminal legal aid spend is at its lowest for several years. In the latest year it is expected to be down again when the figures are released. There has been no rise in the equivalent hourly rate for 15 years, inflation has been more than absorbed by the fees practitioners receive and in the last year fees paid for committals have been removed and there has been a further reduction of the fees paid for Crown Court Cases. Legal Aid practitioners cannot take any more cuts, no one firm is running at a profit margin of 17.5% so the suggested reduction in fees is not sustainable and the new entrants to the market are unlikely to be survive, never-mind recouping the considerable investments to win the new contracts which are for 3 years.

THE GOVERNMENT ARE PROPOSING CHANGES TO THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM WHICH INCLUDE REDUCING THE NUMBER OF DEFENCE FIRMS FROM 1600 TO 400 AND REMOVING CLIENTS RIGHT TO CHOOSE WHO REPRESENTS THEM. PLEASE SIGN THE PETITION : http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/48628

Oliver Gardner
Howards & Henry’s Solicitors
489 Chester Road
Old Trafford
Manchester
M16 9HF