Legal Aid Reform Proposals: From Consultation to Destruction

by Ray_North on June 5, 2013

UnknownYesterday saw the last day of the Government’s consultation period over its proposed changes to legal aid. I’ve written about this on a few occasions in the last few months. I’m tired of thinking about it. I’m tired of moaning about it. I’m tired of telling my wife that I don’t know if I’ll still be in work in a year or two. I just want to get on with doing my job.

And this week, that job has seen me defending a young lad who faces a charge, which, if he is convicted will see him go to prison for life.

I can’t go into the details, but, I can say that the young man I’m representing is not an evil bastard, someone who society should turn their back on, he is a young man who spent his childhood in care and became an alcoholic and drug addict, and then got into a fight with a couple of other alcoholics with tragic consequences. As it happens the case against him isn’t very strong – but you’ll have to take my word for that.

Bob Neil is a Tory MP and member of the Justice Select Committee. Now, excuse my naive ignorance, but I was always under the impression that the Justice Select Committee was there to help preserve justice. But, yesterday morning, Bob Neil (who, as it happens is also a former Criminal Barrister), went onto the Today Programme not to consider the proposals but to defend in the vehement way he could the Government’s proposals for the changes in legal aid.

As I’ve said before, the proposals will see four things happen to our Criminal Justice System: first, most firms of solicitors will go out of business as best value tendering will lead to large corporate companies like Tescos and Stobarts being awarded the limited number of contracts; second, people charged with a criminal offence will no longer be able to have the lawyer of their choice; third, the quality of advocacy in the Magistrates and Crown Court will be profoundly diminished; and, fourth, most barrister’s Chambers who rely upon legally aided work will disappear – which means most of them.

Bob Neil either didn’t grasp these consequences, or didn’t care (I suspect the latter) – when it came to quality he argued that all advocates and providers (which is the new name for lawyer – ‘my Learned Provider’ ouch ) will be ‘quality assured’, which is true, what he forgot to mention was that a provider will be able to become ‘quality assured’ after going on a weekend course. I ask you this – if you were, like my client, charged with murder, what would you want – an advocate whose quality was assured because of twenty five years of experience (like the Silk in my case), or someone who has been on a weekend course and picked up a certificate.

His protestations about quality made me angry.

Then, he turned to the issue of choice – and this made me scared.

‘Most ordinary people,’ he said, ‘don’t think that criminals should have a choice as to who represents them.’ Well, Mr Neil, you’ve clearly forgotten one of the principles upon which our great democracy was founded upon, that is that everyone is actually innocent until proven guilty. When someone first asks for a lawyer, they are not a criminal, they are the accused. The state has accused them – which is the greatest power the state has, and, as such they have the right to say to the state – ‘I didn’t do it. I am not guilty.’ And to do that, they should be able to choose which solicitor and barrister they think is best qualified to defend them. It is absolute anathema for the state to choose who should defend someone against a crime that the state has itself alleged.

Every barrister and solicitor I know (I don’t know Mr Neil), has come out against these proposals. Not because they fear for their incomes (though we do), but because we believe in what we do and we believe that everyone has the right to have their defence put before a Court of Law in a proper way, where the pressure is to perform to the best of your ability for your client, not maximise profits for your shareholders.

I finished my response to the consultation by politely requesting that the government put the proposals into a bin and bury them in a landfill site as far away as possible. Others I know were not quite so polite.

Now, we have a government that were not elected on a mandate to fundamentally undermine the criminal justice system or destroy the system of advocacy and representation that we have enjoyed for hundreds of years. But, despite that, and despite the fact that those who know about the system are opposed to these changes – the government will almost certainly preserver. I warn you now – don’t ever get yourself accused of a crime.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Charlie_East_West June 5, 2013 at 9:07 pm

If this all goes through – in a nutshell – what happens next?

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Ray_North June 5, 2013 at 9:18 pm

Stage one: legal aid fees will be cut by 17%
Stage two: only contracted firms will be able to get legal aid work – contracts will be awarded not on merit but after best value tendering.
Stage three: those solicitors firms who don’t get contracts (most of them) will go out of business.
Stage four: the firms who got the contracts will have to do it at a cut price and will no longer be able to instruct counsel, so most barristers chambers will go out of business.
Stage five: to replace barristers, criminal trials will be conducted by provider advocates who have been ‘quality assured’.
I despair.

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George_East June 5, 2013 at 10:11 pm

The scariest phrase I heard being bounded about was de-lawyering the process. What the fuck does that mean? These are charges brought under the criminal law in a court of law. Are we going to de-doctor surgery next.

We live in scary times . We have an ideologically crazed right wing government without a mandate trashing some of the most fundemental building blocks of out polity. Sadly it comes down once again to Nick Clegg and the rest of the Orange Bookers who gave Thatcherite ultras who had lost an unlosable election a majority of 80 to do what the fuck they liked with, all for a couple of meaningless titles and some government limos.

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Mike Killingworth June 6, 2013 at 7:35 am

Quite so, George. As I’ve said before (and I expect you’ll get tired of my repeating it): the centre of British politics is now to the right of Thatcher. That is her achievement.

There is one point which Ray forgot to make. It is that, to the person-in-the-street, innocent people don’t get accused. That’s what gives Bob Neil the confidence to take the line he does. And wait for any politician (yes, even Caroline Lucas) to take issue with him. They won’t. They know what costs votes.

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Ray_North June 6, 2013 at 8:51 am

Mike, you’re absolutely right – many people don’t think that people accused of crimes should even have a defence advocate – right up until the point that they are accused. This is one of those issues when public opinion (or an element of it) should be ignored.

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George_East June 6, 2013 at 9:56 am

And of course, if you know your legal history, up until the early part of the 19th century, if you were accused of a felony (with capital punishment the standard sentence) you weren’t entitled to defence counsel or to give evidence in your own cause. The difference with Grayling’s proposals is the wealthiest will still be able to deploy top lawyers in their defence, whilst the inevitable miscarriages of justice are meted out on everybody else.

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Eddie Kaye June 6, 2013 at 10:52 am

Just like everything else this set of wankers have done in power. While Clement Attlee, William Beverage, John Meynard Keynes, Nye Bevan, Horace Rumpole (the bloke who played Horace Rumpole for all I know) even Tories like Harold MacMillan and Alec Douglas-Home are turning in their graves…meanwhile Margaret Thatcher, the moneylenders the good Lord expelled from the Temple, Shylock, Rumpole’s nemesis Claude Erskine-Browne, Keith Joseph, and all the slave owning plantatione owners of the antebellum deep south are having a fucking street party!

2 Rants in 2 days…GRRRR!

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alex w June 6, 2013 at 9:03 pm

Can the last one out please turn out the lights. What sort of country do these idiots think they are leaving behind. The tories managed to convince everyone that 3 terms of a labour gvt had left the country bankrupt, well one term of this shower is going to leave the country morally bankrupt and the cost to try and repair the damage they will have left will be massive both economically and socially. Much more of this and its man the barricades time!

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Adam Lindsay January 3, 2014 at 12:34 pm

Hi Ray,

I’m a producer at BBC Sussex, and we’re running an item about the impact changes to Legal Aid are having on our breakfast show on Monday morning. I read your blog and thought you’d make a great guest and would be able to give an interesting different perspective on the story. Would you be interested in coming on? You can retain your anonymity.

Please give me a call on 01273 320 404 and we can have a chat.

Thanks,

Adam

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