A Call to Arms For Criminal Lawyers
Criminal Defence Lawyers Affected by Legal Aid Cuts
As most of you will now be aware, yesterday the Government announced in parliament at exactly 1pm that they intend to press ahead with the Two Tier duty system which will see a speedy death for up to 75% of criminal defence firms and more pressing a cut of 8.75% across the board on legal aid fees from the 1st July 2015. Yes next month, not next year.
For those of you who do not know, legal aid rates 20 years ago when I entered the profession were around £52 per hour. This is not a fee payable to the lawyer but to the firm out of which all business expenses must first be paid. Do not overlook the fact that commercial firms were at that time charging £200 per hour and more. Following the next cut the rates will be down to £36 and at a time when living costs have increased considerably and our counterparts in the private world are commanding fees of over £300 per hour.
I am not advocating for fees that are comparable to our civil brethren but a fee that allows for some incentive to enter a profession that undertakes possibility some of the hardest work and for the most difficult clients in the whole of the legal world.
And so I make this personal plea, it is not made on behalf of the CLSA or my firm nor do I speak for any person or entity other than myself.
In my capacity as a committee member of the CLSA, (a position I am privileged to hold) and having been involved to some degree with others on a more local level in coordinating efforts to oppose government reforms to criminal legal aid, I have had read many emails and heard from many people with their views about the whole fiasco.
I have read through every one without exception and I thank you for those, not least of all because they have inspired me to write this blog.
Many of you have told me that you will be forced to close as a result of this second cut and/or Two Tier and I know of several who have already shut following the introduction of the first cut last year and it maybe that you will never work again in the field of criminal law but it makes me feel physically sick to think that decent, hard working, well respected and highly regarded lawyers as so many of you are, will soon, no longer be the asset to the vulnerable and needy clients we all represent.
It makes me angry that careers, businesses and reputations will be destroyed in a single blow by this arrogant, ignorant and disingenuous government. That they believe they are so beyond reproach that lawyers are no longer needed to protect our citizens from an oppressive and powerful state with its various executive arms all backed by lawyers and with unlimited resources.
As criminal lawyers we reap no sympathy from the public and let’s be honest we do not really expect to get it. But, like it or not, we are the last stand against these reforms. The family lawyers, immigration lawyers, mental health lawyers, welfare and social lawyers all stood idly by along with their impotent representative bodies whilst this government took away the safety net once provided for the most vulnerable within our society: legal aid.
Without legal aid these people have no voice. Without a voice these people are nothing but mats whose rights are to be trampled all over. Without legal aid the poor, vulnerable, needy, those on the edge of society and with no other support network will have no recourse when they are wronged. They will learn to accept their place in society, the rest of society will become hardened to their plight and begin to see them as some underclass, some lesser being unworthy of the rights and benefits the rest of enjoy and take for granted, rights we could actually afford to everyone but for our own selfish reasons, usually financial ones we convince ourselves are not rights but in fact in some way privileges to be earned by increasing ones perceived social standing.
We have to fight, we have to act. If we do not then we have failed ourselves but more importantly those we represent.
As criminal lawyers we have long complained that we experience and deal with the waste that the rest of society has thrown out. There is no doubt this is true. When doctors, social workers, the care system have all failed, we pick up the pieces, we deal with and represent the mentally ill, the drug addicts, the sick and all of those challenged in other ways and we do so, I am proud to say, with compassion. I have seen the work you all do. I have seen the care and compassion you employ for the benefit of your clients. You do not just provide legal advice, rather you counsel, you reassure, you support, guide and even tolerate the most desperate of situations all of which have no connection whatsoever to your jobs as lawyer but you do it anyway because you give a damn and you know that if you do not then nobody else will either.
Don’t get me wrong, I have made a decent living, I am fortunate enough to have reached partner level in the 3 years or so before things turned so bad but I have not earned fortunes, I fear for the future, I have 3 young children and a wife to support. I know most of you certainly have not gotten rich of legal aid and do not expect to ever do so. Yet you continue to remain committed to this job and to your clients.
I genuinely fear that when these cuts bite, when Two Tier is finally introduced and you lot are all gone, the clients will be left represented by solicitors employed on the cheap who are managed by profit driven non-lawyer supervisors that set targets and leave no room whatsoever for the compassion and care that makes those who currently undertake this work so valuable. The danger for our clients cannot be overstated.
I can go on about the long term costs but you all know the arguments and in any event we all know that these latest savings are short term designed to pander to the likes of the average daily mail reader (no offence I do also still read it from time to time, you know what I mean). And the government know it too, so there is no point in trying to convince them otherwise.
So I ask you to all to dig deep for one last stand, let us not go down without a fight and who knows we might just bloody win.
It may be that in the next day or so the CLSA/LCCSA will ask something of you. I do not yet know the detail but inevitably your views on whether you will be able to continue to work after the 1st July will be in there in some form. I understand that you all have business to run, wages and bills to pay but whatever is asked of you please think longer term. Please try to remember that the CLSA/LCCSA has worked tirelessly over the last two years for your and your clients benefit. They have worked without reward and even more so many have actually sacrificed their own businesses, fee earning ability and income potential for the cause.
Please help them to help you, please complete whatever short survey they might send to you, join up and actively support them, submit your opinions, (we have an amazing web/email facility for the community to speak to each other and the leadership of the two organisations are always involved in the discussions therein) and let us support each other. I now we are not all best buddies, we compete of course but I do not want to see any of you fail. We have a common cause, a common enemy and so let us fight together on a united front.
There is much work going on behind the scenes, I and others on committee will keep you up to date as best we can.
Thank you for your time.
Howards Solicitors have offices in Manchester & Macclesfield and specialise in Criminal Defence, Road Traffic / Motoring Offenses & Personal Injury Law.
Details about the author:
Oliver Gardner is a criminal Solicitor and Director at Howards Solicitors with offices in Manchester and South Cheshire. Oliver is a committee member of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association and is trained in psychotherapy to level 3.