by Kam Sandhu – @KamBass
Archives For Legal Aid
On Monday 6 January, there was a half day protest outside the Old Bailey and across other criminal courts in the country, as barristers walked out for the first time in their history against £220m proposed cuts to legal aid. The media reacted accordingly, with the right wing press branding protesters ‘the most privileged picket line ever’, focusing on images of a ‘lady barrister clutching a £1,100 Mulberry bag’.
But these cuts are dramatically changing the profession, resulting in the sea change of barristers walking out of courts for the first time ever to protest. So what are some of the reasons young barristers are starting to make a stand by taking direct action? Firstly, the cuts in legal aid will result in an already elitist profession becoming even more difficult to access for the less wealthy in society.
This is not helped the profession being traditionally ‘posh’ and privileged, making barristers a difficult group to feel compassionate for. But the effects of cuts will result in even more unequal access to the profession, as despite an increase in diversity in terms of inclusivity to ethnic minorities and females, there is still a large proportion of barristers from wealthy, privately educated backgrounds.
This is compounded by the increasing costs associated with going to law school, for example to study the law ‘conversion’ course to become a barrister (the BPTC – Bar Professional Training Course) costs £16,500 for a one year course. This is on top of a tripled student debt. Additionally, to become a barrister you have to join one of the 4 ‘Inns’ and sign up to 12 formal dinners, which as well as the need to build up your CV through lots of volunteer or ‘Pro bono’ work, can be extremely costly.
The process of becoming a barrister is hard to navigate without being well educated. For example, following the completion of the BPTC (bar training course) you must apply for a two year Pupillage. But not only is the application stage time consuming, examples of interviews at barristers’ chambers include being asked to use the scenario of a newly formed country, arguing which are the top 15 laws which should be enacted first. Interviewees were then asked to rank these on the spot in importance, a tough process for any graduate.
The cuts in legal aid will affect clients being able to access barristers as less will take on legal aid cases because not only is it a costly, difficult profession to get into, but the end result is a profession with less pay and decreased benefits ultimately leading to less barristers and more potential miscarriages of justice.
This is due in part to the cuts in fees for barristers taking on legal aid (particularly criminal). Case fees face a 30% cut, hitting the criminal legal aid system particularly badly.
This leads to a problem for the profession, as less young people want to take on legal aid cases due to the lack of pay.
So what is the future of the profession looking like for young, aspiring barristers? A tough slog, no more Mulberrys on the picket line, instead an increasingly elitist profession, which can only be accessed by the most wealthy students, well-educated enough to navigate themselves around the pupillage system and wealthy enough to amass the voluntary work packed CV needed to gain a ‘pupillage’ place. Secondly, the cuts in legal aid will undoubtedly also have an impact on the profession, with less barristers being able to take on legal aid cases meaning more people representing themselves. This, in turn will not only change the profession, but also lead to an increase in miscarriages of justice.
But, Justice Alliance promises more protests to come, let’s hope barristers who for the first time ever rose up for justice and what legal aid started for, are inspired to fight on.
“Happy birthday to legal aid, Happy Birthday to legal aid!” sang the collection of around 4-500 people who gathered outside the Old Bailey in Central London on Tuesday afternoon last week, to celebrate the 64th birthday of legal aid. The celebratory atmosphere did not just extend to cake being cut, but an impromptu sing a-long with the London Gospel Choir, amongst other musicians, coaxed people out of their offices and into the street.
But it wasn’t just a birthday party which led the Justice Alliance to call the rally. The grand presence of the Old Bailey behind the demonstrators with the epitaph ‘Defend the children of the poor’ was a reminder of the planned government cuts in legal aid which had brought everyone together.
The rally was organised by the ‘Justice Alliance’; a newly formed umbrella organisation for a collection of over 20 organisations which includes legal, trade unions and community groups. It boasts some weighty names; Amnesty International, Sadiq Khan (the Shadow Justice Minister) and Unite can be seen amongst the ‘signatories’ to the statement of the Alliance. The statement includes an acknowledgement that access to justice for all is a ‘vital part of the UK justice system’ and the cuts in legal aid are ‘part of the larger assault on essential parts of the welfare state.’
So what were the main messages to take away from the rally? The first was a unanimous condemnation amongst the speakers of the government’s proposed ‘selling off’ of legal services to private companies like Serco and G4S. This was highlighted well by Ian Lawrence, the Assistant General Secretary with the Probation and Family Court Union (NAPO). He stated the future of probation could be that you are arrested by a police officer paid by Serco, then dealt with by a Probation officer paid by Serco, then given a lawyer paid by Serco, then convicted with a judge paid by Serco. Given this context, the privatisation of legal services would spell the end for fair access to justice.
Secondly, one of the most effective parts of the rally was the number of people who had the courage to stand up and talk about the miscarriages of justice which would occur if the cuts to legal aid were implemented. One example is a man called Raphael Rowe who talked about his life sentence in 1990 for murder as part of the M25 Three. He served 12 years in solitary confinement. However, after gaining access to a criminal legal aid lawyer whilst in prison, he was able to uncover forensic evidence which led to his conviction being overturned in 2000. He is now a BBC investigative journalist. He talked about his life long debt to his criminal lawyers and the legal aid that funded them.
Thirdly, the rally was better organised than its predecessor outside parliament on the 22 May 2013. There was a large PA system and stand for the speakers, visual entertainment and a good choice of location outside the Old Bailey. All this under the banner of the Justice Alliance, which shows the strength of the voice of the opposition to the government’s attack on legal aid when different groups pull together.
Fourthly, there was a final note of action. The resounding applause following the closing speech of Matt Foot, a criminal defence solicitor at Birnberg Peirce and organiser at Justice Alliance stated the Alliance will support strike action, as well as the day of action called for by UK Uncut in the Autumn. Further, with Chris Grayling’s second round of ‘consultations’ in September, there will be a public meeting held and a response formed from the Justice Alliance.
So the message from the day? Rallies are good but they are not enough. It is time to take the next step, and The Justice Alliance supports both civil disobedience and strike action against the cuts in legal aid. Watch this space.
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.”
Recommended: We found this great blog where members of the criminal bar can air their views and write a post about their experiences, feelings and predictions regarding the proposed cuts to legal aid. We definitely suggest heading over for a read from some of the voices inside the profession.
Find them at criminalbarassociation.wordpress.com
We received this yesterday, 11th June, before the Justice Select Committee hearing, and before Lord McNally’s “hysterical” outburst on Law in Action, in an admirable interview by @joshuarozenberg.
Then this morning, Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail attacks the “ashtray” voice of Michael Turner QC, and the “Biker” Lucy Scott Moncrieff whilst railing about legal aid lawyers in sharp suits on £200 per hour.
Who knows how far into the public arena this blog reaches? This post is certainly not one likely to feature in the Mail, as they do not have the wit or the guts to publish anything that offends against their slavish toadying to the likes of Grayling and his ilk.
If you sense anger in this introduction you are right. Far too much of what appears below strikes personal chords with your editor, as indeed it will with the vast majority of those practitioners who…
View original post 1,843 more words
by Kam Sandhu – @KamBass
On 4th June, the consultation on new reforms to legal aid ended. The last few weeks have seen hundreds of barristers, lawyers and firms condemn the proposed changes, in a bid to stop “catastrophic“, elitist, and “unjust” cuts to legal aid. Despite strong feelings from the Bar and the public to protect this vital service, it is difficult to understand exactly what is happening to our justice system. So, to get an insight, we caught up with Criminal Barrister and joint secretary of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers, Mike Goold, to find out in detail, what we stand to lose.
In the first part of the interview, we find out what is happening right now in legislation, how changes will affect fairness of trial, and also discuss the Justice Secretary’s elitist attitude to the reforms.
Talk us through what is happening in terms of legal aid cuts right now. How will and how are they affecting people?
There’s [been] a consultation proposed by the government, which they launched a week or so into April and which [closed] on Tuesday [4th June]. They’re proposing quite substantial cuts to criminal legal aid in particular, but also civil legal aid – immigration, housing law and criminal law, those sorts of areas.
“Withdrawing legal assistance that hits some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in society.”
This comes off the back of already very substantial cuts that were introduced in April. There was an act that came in called the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act which was passed in 2012, but provisions came into force in April, which took a lot of areas of civil law out of legal aid altogether.
This covers housing law and things like social welfare law, so advice and representation in relation to people making claims for benefits and appealing against refusals of benefits.
The cuts that came in April very much focus on civil law, but are very nasty, because people that tend to rely on or require that kind of legal advice are some of the most vulnerable people – people who are facing eviction, people who are being mistreated by their landlords and in relation to social welfare – people who are on benefits, disabled people, people maybe who have been wrongly refused benefits. So withdrawing legal assistance that hits some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in society.
So this already came in, in April, at a time when the government is looking to make cutbacks in public spending [with] the bedroom tax, housing benefit cap and such. So coming in at a time when people are increasingly needing support in housing areas and benefits. There’s quite a big incentive at the moment for examiners and people making decisions over benefits to refuse people benefits for cost saving. So there’ll be a lot of people being refused benefits who’ll be needing assistance and now can’t get it.
So all that came in April and about a week after these cuts came in, they released a further consultation. This time, mainly focusing on cuts to criminal law, but there are some nasty things for civil law as well.
One of the main things they’re doing is introducing price competitive tendering. So effectively, they want organisations to bid to have a contract. You have to have a contract to do legal aid law, but at the moment there’s no limit on the amount of organisations that can get contracts. What they’re proposing in criminal law, is reducing the amount of contracts to a much, much, much smaller level than it is now. In geographical areas, they’ll enforce companies to bid and basically offer to do the work at the lowest price. They’re saying that they will only accept bids 17.5% lower than the current rate. So that’s the maximum you’re allowed to bid. So there’ll be at least a 17.5% cut in legal aid rates.
“It’s going to be a race to the bottom for the quality of the legal aid that’s going to be provided.”
And they sort of sell this by saying that all this money goes to fat cat lawyers anyway, but in reality, legal aid solicitors, junior barristers and solicitors that work in criminal legal aid are pretty poorly paid already, and it’s going to get much worse.
But the main issue isn’t whether the lawyers will survive, it’s what happens to the clients. Because they’re asking companies to bid for the lowest cost. It’s going to be a race to the bottom for the quality of the legal aid that’s going to be provided. And what the government want is for big companies to come in and do it by economies of scale. So there’s already talk about organisations such as G4S, Tesco and Co-op and even Eddie Stobart. In fact Eddie Stobart has already set up a company called Stobart Law – they’re clearly going to be one of the organisations bidding. So organisations with no specialist knowledge are going to try and churn out this work at the lowest cost and it’s really going to affect the quality of the service people get.
The people representing civil cases will be chosen by a government agency. How will that affect the fairness of the trial and how important is it for a client to choose their own lawyer?
It’s extremely important for a number of reasons. At the moment when someone gets arrested and they go to the police station, they can request a solicitor to attend, and may already have dealings with a solicitor they want. They can pick their own solicitor, and that’s very important because it means solicitors, firms and lawyers at the moment are competing essentially by quality. So the better firms are, the more likely they are to get clients because they’re better at the work they do. What’s going to be introduced now is after they have a much smaller amount of organisations with contracts, there’s going to be no client choice. Effectively, there’ll be a rota. If there’s eight companies offering legal services in a geographical area, the first client that goes into a police station gets organisation number one. The next will get organisation number two. So there’s no client choice.
“It’s going to stop firms from being able to specialise and therefore stop clients from being able to get that specialist support…and if you get an Eddie Stobart pop-up lawyer who just cares about getting the case out the way very quickly, there’s nothing you can do to challenge that.”
That’s a trap for the client for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s going to be very, very difficult for any organisation to offer specialist legal support. At the moment there are organisations that are known for doing say, human rights work, or protest work in criminal law. A lot of students who got arrested after the student demonstrations went to particular firms because they knew they were good at doing protest law and that kind of political law. But you won’t be able to do that anymore because you’ll get whatever one that happens to be on the rota. So it’s going to stop firms from being able to specialise and therefore stop clients from being able to get that specialist support. So taking away any idea of client choice, and if you get an Eddie Stobart pop-up lawyer who just cares about getting the case out the way very quickly, there’s nothing you can do to challenge that.
Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, justified these changes by saying, “I don’t believe that most people who find themselves in our criminal justice system are great connoisseurs of legal skills. We know the people in our prisons and who come into our courts are often from the most difficult and challenged backgrounds”. What is Grayling saying here? And what does this mean about the attitude of the government towards these cuts?
It’s an astounding quote from him. People in the profession thought that [quote] showed such disregard, and such arrogance, and instead of trying to do better for the people using the legal system, what he’s saying is this incredibly elitist position that the average criminal is too stupid to know whether he’s got a good lawyer or not. If it was true even, it would not still not justify giving them a cut, because if someone was particularly disadvantaged that wouldn’t justify giving them a terrible lawyer. But of course, it isn’t true.
That’s one of the annoying things, they claim they’re introducing these changes to introduce competition into the market, but there’s already competition because solicitor’s firms compete on quality. Clients do know whether they’ve had a good lawyer or not before, and they’ll go back to that lawyer or firm because they’ve had good quality representation. So it’s completely wrong to say that clients aren’t aware of what a good lawyer is, and I’d say even if it was true, it’s unjust and wouldn’t justify what they’re trying to do in any event.
What you’re saying about fairness of trial, there’s two big issues there. Firstly, the quality of the representation is going to go down, which is obviously going to have an impact on fairness of trial and whether people get good quality representation. I think we can predict there’s going to to be a huge increase in miscarriages of justice just because there’s going to to be such an incentive for the organisations providing legal service to get through cases quickly.
There’s going to be a big incentive, therefore, to get clients to plead guilty, because it means you can get the case out the way much quicker. So I think clients will be pushed to plead guilty when they’re not. And also, even if they do go to trial, if things are being rushed over, there’s not going to be anywhere near enough time for the lawyers to analyse the case and go into detail and pick up things they might otherwise not in the papers. Some of the biggest miscarriages of justice in history are either evidence that wasn’t given by a prosecution or things that just weren’t picked up, small things that didn’t seem important and analysed, and we’ll see a huge increase in that.
But the other main reason it will effect sentencing of trial over the quality of representation is, in theory, especially if organisations like G4S get involved, there’s going to be a huge conflict of interest. I don’t think it’s been confirmed that G4S are bidding for contracts yet, but it’s very, very, likely. G4S currently run some of the prisons and transport clients between prisons and courts, and already have a very involved role in the justice system, and the punishment point. If they’re also going to be representing people as lawyers, then that’s a huge conflict of interest, because you’ve got someone representing a client, from a company that also has a financial interest in them being sent to jail because they’re running the prisons.