In the second part of out interview with Criminal Barrister and joint secretary of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers, Mike Goold, we talk about the effects of cuts on the law profession, nasty hidden extras in the proposals and building on the anger and resistance felt by the public and the profession.
The legal aid cuts affect the free services for those at the bottom of the ladder. Will the changes have any effect on other areas of the law profession as a whole, for lawyers and clients?
A lot of people will lose their job. At the moment according to the MOJ’s own statistics, there’s about 1600 firms that have criminal legal aid contracts and provide criminal law services. They want to reduce that to 400. Dramatically reducing the number. 25% will have a contract. If they’re organisations that do other work from criminal law they might not go bust, but they’ll either go bust or their criminal department’s going to close.
I think a number of organisations, if they do go ahead, will end up merging, so I don’t think 1200 firms will go bust but a huge amount will. But this is what the government want. They keep saying the consultation is about rationalising or making it more economical, but what they mean is reduce the number of people employed in this area. So thousands of solicitors will lose their jobs, and if the cuts go through as they currently are, within the bar it could be even worse. It could just be the end of the criminal bar in general, because they want these big companies to bid for contracts.
“The bigger risk really, and what we should raise in the public, is the effect on clients; vulnerable people and people who rely on legal services and need legal services because those people are really going to get screwed over.”
Barristers’ chambers are not like this. We are self-employed and organise ourselves in chambers. It’s a way for barristers to pool their resources, but most chambers are a few odd members, so there’s no way they can bid for these contracts. It won’t be a financially viable system, and might disappear altogether. Solicitors will want to work in-house themselves because the fees have got so bad they won’t be able to extract the barristers to do the advocacy work, so they have to do it all themselves. It could be the end of the criminal bar if these cuts go through, so it will have a huge impact on the profession.
The bigger risk really, and what we should raise in the public, is the effect on clients, vulnerable people and people who rely on legal services and need legal services because those people are really going to get screwed over.
And there’s some nasty little added extras that they’ve put in this consultation.
“So that’s a nasty little extra thing they’re putting in, which obviously stinks of a generally quite racist thing that this government is adding, in relation to immigration in their general policies.”
One thing they have put in, in relation to civil legal aid, is a residents requirement. So you’ll only be able to qualify for civil legal aid (so whatever housing representation is left or any part of civil law) you have to be lawfully resident in the country for 12 months. So if you have an overstayer or even if have been in the country legally, but you haven’t been here 12 months, you won’t qualify for legal aid. There’s been huge issues raised by some NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations) recently that this could affect for example trafficking and sex workers, children of failed asylum seekers, migrants who haven’t been given the right to stay – these people will be no longer be entitled to any sort of representation. And obviously immigration is something that falls under civil law. So that’s a nasty little extra thing they’re putting in, which obviously stinks of a generally quite racist thing that this government is adding, in relation to immigration in their general policies.
And another thing, the judicial review is a means by which people can challenge the decisions of executives of the government and any executive bodies. So that can be anything from being evicted from a council house owned by the government, you, or immigration decisions, decisions to be refused asylum, these things can be challenged by judicial review. And the government have, if you’re being quite cynical about this, and I certainly am, the government have an incentive to stop people if they can, because it’s the way people challenge unjust government decisions.
What they’re proposing to do (it’s quite complicated), but in judicial review cases you have to apply for permission before you actually bring the case. So the first stage is you actually putting together the case, you take it to the court and say you want to challenge a decision. The court assesses if there’s a valid case there, and then grants you permission. But, they are changing it so anything in terms of legal aid isn’t available until permission is granted. So if permission is refused people won’t get paid for any of the work that was done up to that point in that case. If permission is granted, then you get paid for the work that you did.
“It’s quite a calculated thing the government are doing here, because like I say, this is going to stop people from being able to challenge government decisions, which is in their interest and it’s protecting themselves as well as cost saving.”
So that means it’s going to be very financially dangerous for firms to take on risky cases, because if there’s a chance that permission isn’t granted. Then they won’t get paid, that work will be for free and they might go bankrupt. It’s very hard to assess a case at the outset and say for certain whether it’s going to be successful or not. Some of the most important judicial review challenges that have been won against unjust government decision, may have, at the outset have looked like weak cases, which now won’t be able to be brought to challenge because of risk. It’s quite a calculated thing the government are doing here, because like I say, this is going to stop people from being able to challenge government decisions, which is in their interest and it’s protecting themselves as well as cost saving.
Unlike other forms of benefit cuts, it seems that from polls, the public do really want to protect legal aid and feel it is important to invest money into it, and provide legal assistance. But what can they do now to fight them?
The cuts that came in April have happened, but obviously the other consultation to do with price competitive tendering and other cuts, they haven’t come in yet. Chris Grayling (Justice Secretary) has said he wants to take bids from organisations in, I think, Autumn of this year, with the system completely ready to roll out by Autumn of 2014. So there is still time to fight it, these recent policies aren’t in yet by any stretch.
“There’s been cutbacks to legal aid for the past 10 years, they’ve really been hacking away and there really isn’t that much left.”
In some ways the solicitors and barristers and profession in general, and particularly the professional bodies like the Law Society. the Bar Standards Board and the Bar Council have been quite crap up to this point about fighting the cuts because this isn’t new. There’s been cutbacks to legal aid for the past 10 years, they’ve really been hacking away and there really isn’t that much left.
The action so far has been pretty poor. Since the cutbacks in April there was some campaigning from NGO and some left wing areas of the profession but very little from the actual bar as a whole.
I think finally the Bar Count and the Law Society are realising how serious these most recent proposals are, and they are trying to mobilise, letters are being sent, petitions are going round and there’s been demonstrations. So the actual profession is mobilising – so that’s a good thing, and there is support from the public that needs to built on. There have been a few polls that suggest that the public feel that if these cuts go through there will be more miscarriages of justice – that’s a good sign that they are also aware. Now, we have to fight it and raise the publicity but also, I would suggest, and a lot of other practitioners thinking this too, some sort of direct action. Whether you want to call it a strike or not I don’t know. It’s not a profession used to industrial action. There’s talk of having organised “training days” which is effectively just withdrawing our labour for the day. So that sort of action I think needs to be followed through on. But there does seem to be a lot of anger and resistance in the profession now because I think they realise how severe these cuts will be.