Tabloid press can’t shout enough about the fat cat lawyers and criminals making and taking money out of legal aid, with an aptly timed run of stories in support of cuts to the service. But this simplified version of events and the absence of column inches on the impact of the cuts for clients, fairness and justice is misleading.
The Sun recently published the earnings of the top ten legal aid lawyers, with Balbir Singh, a lawyer specialising in Human Rights, Terrorism and Immigration topping the bill with £493,022 “of public cash for defending criminals in 2011-12,” the Sun said.
The Daily Mail is following a similar route – finding the biggest figures from the biggest companies and presenting them in their usual sensationalist style. The paper also highlights cases such as Abu Qatada, where high-profile criminals are using legal aid – in a bid to convey that the service is there to defend and pump money into criminals alone.
The Daily Mail was also the paper to first reveal the costs of legal aid for two of Stephen Lawrence’s killers. Gary Dobson and David Norris, jailed for life in January last year, received a total of around £425,000 in legal aid. Other media also ran the story.
We should be allowed to access this information. There is no problem with this transparency. But, without some attention on how severe the cuts will be and what they will change, this media suggests money is only taken from the parts that can stand to lose it, by making the most of extreme cases and not providing the full picture.
They neglect to tell us about the impact on the client, how their trials will be treated or how fairness will be affected. And the tabloids carry a dangerous attitude towards those in the criminal system – they seem to ignore that anyone was ever found innocent.
The Stephen Lawrence case is the perfect example. The story stretches back over 20 years, is extremely high profile and is very complex. In fact, there are still huge parts of this case unfolding as we have seen in the last few days. Doreen Lawrence, Stephen’s mother, also used legal aid to fight the case for her murdered son. How would this case change if it happened after the legal aid cuts? According to the legal aid lawyer for Stephen Lawrence’s family, Imran Khan, the case wouldn’t be handled at all, particularly not by the kind of specialist needed:
“Mr Khan said the changes would make it difficult to take on complex and costly cases, such as the Lawrence murder, which could produce changes that benefit all Londoners. He claimed the new system would lead to large law firms offering “bulk buying” prices that would force many ethnic minority solicitors out of business.”
Savings in legal aid from the current and proposed plans will come from price competitive tendering, whereby contracts to supply legal aid will be awarded to those bidding at a rate at least 17.5% lower than the current amount. These reductions are on top of a previous run of cuts introduced in April.
Further, the amount of contracts – and the amount of companies allowed to supply legal aid – will be lowered to around 25% of the current number – pushing some firms out of business.
To be able to supply work at this rate, the government is hoping to see bids from multinationals such as Tesco and Eddie Stobart – companies big enough to cope with the drastic cuts (which could see juniors paid £14 a day) because they are able to take contracts in a few geographical areas. Of course the motivation for these companies will be to make the most money, as quickly as possible. And it seems that is the aim of the government too, as they want to offer the work out to these huge companies with no legal background.
What this will change for something like the Stephen Lawrence case, is a freedom to seek specialist advice. There is no client choice under new proposals.
This removal of choice for specialist law, which in its entirety is a subject hugely complex and far-reaching, will surely drive down the quality of service.You could be allocated a lawyer from a multinational firm with no specialism and no interest except to turn your case over as quickly as possible.
The quickest way to do this is get your client to plead guilty. Many in the legal profession believe that there will be a huge increase in false ‘guilty’ pleas in order to move cases along quicker.
So while it may seem attractive in hindsight, to disallow Dobson and Norris the right to their own lawyer, Doreen Lawrence would be disallowed the same right.
Would the lawyer she would be allocated have become the ‘rock’ (as he is described) that Imran Khan did?
And while we can look unfavorably at Dobson and Norris now, they still required a fair trial before they were proven guilty.This is the most crucial aspect of the justice system. Yet, media such as The Sun and the Daily Mail often freely tarnish people as criminals before, during and after trials – based on how they look, what they do and most worryingly this opinion is projected onto the public.
In The Sun’s afore mentioned description of Babir Singh, he was said to have been ‘defending criminals.’ Just criminals. No mention of the people who he defended that may have been innocent? The people he saved from jail and punishment when they were wrongly accused?
Remember Christopher Jefferies? He was the landlord accused of the murder of 25 year old Joanna Yeates, and he received his unfortunate share of the media spotlight. Tabloids, including the Daily Mail – which ran the headline “Murder police quiz ‘nutty professor’, seemed to make up their minds about him before his trial and a consensus of guilty for the ‘strange’ professor seeped from the pages into the public atmosphere.
After a few days of tabloid taunt, which Jefferies knew nothing about as he was held by the courts, another tenant of his was arrested, found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. Jefferies was interviewed at the Leveson inqury and has not yet received an apology from any media for the ordeal.
This is a worrying effect of media on trials and the lives of individuals. Yet it seems no lessons have been learned, as the press continues to villainise and bandy around the word ‘criminal’ as a term for anyone who comes into contact with the legal system.
There are thousands of people that need legal aid to protest a false claim. And it acts as an important protection against powerful authorities.
This mother required legal aid to defend her two sons, after were arrested at the student demonstrations. They were eventually acquitted from the charge of violent disorder. Because their chosen law firm Bindmans, specialised in protest law they were able to take good care of the family’s case. The firm had connections to local support groups, and through one of these groups, they found someone who had video footage from the protest that would clear the boys’ name. Despite 11 witness statements from police – making the case difficult, the boys were rightly cleared of the crime.
As Imran Khan highlighted, legal aid goes much further than defending the guilty:
The future is bleak. Legal aid is not simply about defending so-called criminals, it is also about protecting people’s rights and improving society for everyone… But now it is getting to the stage where lawyers are going to be turning away cases that might be the next Lawrence, the next Zahid Mubarek or the next Climbié.”