Archives For legal aid cuts

Access to Justice In The UK

kamsandhu —  February 25, 2014 — 1 Comment

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by Kam Sandhu @KamBass

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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’.

Image: The Daily Mail  Caption reads: Privileged: Barrister Charlotte Hole (front row, second left) clutches a £1,100 Mulberry bag during yesterday's action. She was among thousands of barristers across the UK to stage a protest against legal aid cuts

Image: The Daily Mail
Caption reads: Privileged: Barrister Charlotte Hole (front row, second left) clutches a £1,100 Mulberry bag during yesterday’s action. She was among thousands of barristers across the UK to stage a protest against legal aid cuts

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.

Justice Alliance Logo - The Justice Alliance organised the protest on 6th January

Justice Alliance Logo – The Justice Alliance organised the protest on 6th January

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.

By @HorlickSFH

Demonstration against Legal Aid Cuts Image: The Times

Demonstration against Legal Aid Cuts Image: The Times

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.

Stephen Lawrence was murdered in a racist attack in 1993 Image: The Mirror

Stephen Lawrence was murdered in a racist attack in 1993 Image: The Mirror

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?

Doreen Lawrence and Imran Khan Image: The Telegraph

Doreen Lawrence and Imran Khan Image: The Telegraph

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.

Just one of the front tabloid pages devoted to Chris Jefferies when he was arrested

Just one of the front tabloid pages devoted to Chris Jefferies when he was arrested

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.”

Find out more about legal aid cuts in this report from Radio 4.

by Kam Sandhu @KamBass
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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

criminalbarassociation


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

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.

Demonstration against Legal Aid Cuts Image: The Times

Demonstration against Legal Aid Cuts Image: The Times

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.

MoJ says it wants to cut 75% of firms with legal aid service contracts Image: gmbnorthwest.com

MoJ says it wants to cut 75% of firms with legal aid service contracts Image: gmbnorthwest.com

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.

by Kam Sandhu @KamBass
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1) Ed Miliband makes a controversial speech on social security spending.

On Thursday 6th June, Labour leader Ed Miliband gave a speech on his party’s new plans for social security spending in the UK. In a U-turn on previous policy, Ed Miliband said that he would not reverse the removal of child benefits from homes earning over £50,000 and also showed support to some of the benefit caps.

The changes brought attacks from Prime Minister David Cameron who branded the Labour leader ‘weak’ and ‘confused’ on his benefits policies.

Other reforms in the speech included aims to ‘start investing in homes again, not paying for failure‘, and a limit on the length of time those well enough to work can remain unemployed:

‘For every young man and woman who has been out of work for more than a year, we would say to every business in the country, we will pay the wages for 25 hours a week, on at least the minimum wage.

Fully funded by a tax on bankers’ bonuses.’

For those over 25, this would be imposed after two years of unemployment.

The speech has had a mixed reaction from both supporters and opposition, with some agreeing that certain cuts on welfare need to be made and some feeling the Labour leader has played into providing the ‘tough’ stance on benefits and welfare, instead of defending it.

Read The Full Speech Here.

Ed Miliband Image: bbc.co.uk

Ed Miliband Image: bbc.co.uk

2) ‘Legal revolt’ against cuts to legal aid

Leading barristers and lawyers submitted strong concerns over the proposals for legal aid cuts that aim to see savings of £220m. 4th June stood as the deadline for consultations on the “Transforming Legal Aid” policies, and proposals have been met with severe condemnation from those inside the Bar.

The policies would see huge changes including competitive tendering from contractors who must bid at least 17.5% lower than the current standard rate. The opportunity has seen interest from companies such as supermarket giant Tesco, and haulage and logistics company Eddie Stobart. Lawyers fear the new system will drive down the quality of service in the justice system, as well as see many public law firms close under financial pressure.

Some took to the streets outside the Ministry of Justice to protest on 4th June.

Due to strong opposition to the reforms, the Justice Select Committee will hold an inquiry beginning on 11th June.

Read More About This Story Here.

Legal Aid Cuts Protest Last Month Image: The Guardian

Legal Aid Cuts Protest Last Month Image: The Guardian

3) New report predicts Britain will face a “colossal” bill for child poverty by the end of the decade

The Child Poverty Action Group, who commissioned the report, said that 1 in 4 children (around 3.4m) in Britain will live in relative poverty by 2020, costing the country £35bn.

The report claims that reductions in public spending now will force bigger costs in the future, as more and more families and children face destitution in the wake of cuts.

Alison Garnham from the Child Poverty Action Group branded the cuts a ‘false economy’ and fears the spending review at the end of this month will bring yet more poverty to the country’s children. Instead, Garnham says the review should be seen as “an opportunity to change course and prioritise families with children once again.”

The DWP have enforced their commitment to ending child poverty despite missing their target to halve it in 2010, and admitted there were “far too many children being left behind.”

The Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts that child poverty rates will rise 6% between 2010/11 – 2020/2021, undoing the reductions made under the Labour government in 2000/1-2010/11.

Read More About This Story Here.

Image: channel4learning.com

Image: channel4learning.com

by Kam Sandhu @KamBass

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