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Are legal aid clients second class citizens?

It is not often that I read something that makes my blood boil. When I do, it usually relates to some new proposal by our Government (of whatever political persuasion) that will affect my job as a criminal defence lawyer, or some half-baked idea put forward by one of the many agencies we have to deal with. However, this article in the Law Society Gazette had me seething.

Ian Kelsey, deservedly a well-respected criminal lawyer and advocate, addressed the Law Society’s Criminal Law Conference on 8th May 2012 and propounded  that Criminal firms should make it clear to legal aid clients how their publicly funded status affects the service they get. He is quoted as saying:

‘It’s a myth that clients get the same level of service on legal aid rates as when they pay privately – that disappeared about 10 years ago.’

I am sorry, Mr Kelsey, but you do not speak for me, my firm, nor (I suspect) the majority of criminal defence practitioners who deal with legal aid cases either as solicitors or barristers.

At a previous firm I worked at, I was regularly laughed at by answering the question ‘Why are you a solicitor?’ by saying ‘To help people!’  I did not think this was the slightest bit funny. I am certainly not a criminal defence lawyer to make my fortune. I’m never going to be rich. I am, however, doing a job that has given me, and continues to give me, tremendous job satisfaction.

The overwhelming majority of work that goes through my firm is legally-aided. The same can be said for most of the criminal defence lawyers I know. Our private work comes from those that are not eligible for legal aid for a number of reasons, such as failing to pass the interests of justice test or because their means are such that they do not meet the financial criteria.  That a client is the recipient of legal aid, or is paying for our services from their own pockets, makes not one iota of difference to the service they receive.

Mr Kelsey is also quoted as saying that there is a limit to what criminal legal aid firms can be expected to do and that:

‘We can’t supply a platinum level of service with base metal rates of pay.’

With respect, Mr Kelsey, one cannot help but ask why your firm is still continuing to take on legally-aid clients?

Of course, every firm needs a steady stream of income to survive. A firm predominantly taking on publicly-funded work knows at the outset that that income source is subject to the whim of Government. We have seen the introduction of fixed fees pretty much across the board. We have seen funding for some areas of work totally removed.

We face further challenges – increasing levels of bureaucracy at the soon-to-be-defunct Legal Services Commission (a situation not likely to improve when the Ministry of Justice takes over the role); the introduction of electronic working in courts and in the preparation of cases; constant changes to the Criminal Procedure Rules

That, however, is no excuse for not doing your very best for each and every client (which I am sure Ian’s firm does), or for reducing the levels of service you offer if you intend to carry on with criminal defence work that is state-funded. No one is forced to take on a legal aid contract; it is a matter of choice for each firm.

I do not deny that economies have to be made, but that certainly does not have to be in the level of service given. I accept that the only way to make a profit from criminal defence work is by keeping overheads down and by working harder. No swanky offices and, for us, no secretaries or telephonists.  The upside of such economies, however, is that clients actually believe they are getting a better, and more user-friendly, service.

Making such comments merely perpetuates the real ‘myth’ that legally-aid clients DO get a second-rate service. I have lost count over the years of the number of times I have been asked by clients, who have been eligible for publicly-funded representation, whether it would make a difference to their case if they paid me themselves. My answer has always been the same … not one jot!

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. We send out a client satisfaction questionnaire to all clients at the conclusion of their case asking them to rate our performance during the various stages of their case and our overall performance. We have an extremely high client satisfaction / client complaint ratio as do, I suspect, most of the other criminal defence firms I have dealings with. Anecdotally, most legally-aid criminal clients around the country are very happy with the service, advice and representation they receive.

And criminal clients can be a fickle bunch!  A firm can only retain client loyalty by consistently providing them with accurate advice and effective representation in court. A client who does not think his case is being treated as importantly as he believes it should be (which is usually of the highest importance) will soon ‘jump ship’ and seek representation elsewhere.

Mr Kelsey’s comments are sure to divide opinion amongst both professions but I think he has done a disservice to the considerable number of extremely conscientious criminal lawyers who, day in and day out and over very long hours, do give a ‘platinum’ service to each and every client they advise and represent. I also think he has unwittingly supplied ammunition to those who seek to control the provision of criminal defence services even further than they are already doing so.

 

 

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John Storer Posted by on May 9, 2012. Filed under Crime,Legal aid. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

6 Responses to Are legal aid clients second class citizens?

  1. Jay Hodgson Reply

    May 10, 2012 at 2:34 pm

    I’m not a criminal solicitor, but I work with a lot and have a great affection and respect for them. I have always likened them to social workers or carers, people who need to have a passion for what they do, or they wouldn’t do it. It can’t be for the financial rewards, its got to be for something more fulfilling. Those solicitors who need material rewards can get it in another discipline.

    Forget Ian’s comments, keep on doing what you do…………

  2. Dan Bunting

    Dan Bunting Reply

    May 10, 2012 at 5:27 pm

    I would like to think that I, and every lawyer, provide the same level of service to a privately paying client as a legally aided one. And I hope I do. But, if a friend of mine got falsely accused of, say, shoplifting, then ten years ago I would have said go with legal aid. Now, I’m not so sure I could safely advise that. It’s a shame, most people provide a good service (even if it ends up costing them money), but if you told a member of the public that the lawyers could get paid a total of £500 for all the preparation of the case as well as six or seven court hearings, they would not believe that they would get a proper service.

  3. Mark George Reply

    May 11, 2012 at 10:53 am

    The essence of being a dedicated defence lawyer has always been a desire to do the very best for any client. That has been the ethical stance of London chambers like Garden Court and Tooks Court since the 1970s and 80s and Garden Court North in Manchester follows the same line. We built our reputations on taking legal points that the local barristers scoffed at until we won, and then won again, and they soon stopped laughing at us behind their gowns and began to take us seriously. If you bother to look there is all manner of helpful stuff in the unused material which can be used in cross-examination and can make the difference in winning cases.

    You don’t do criminal law to get rich. You do it because you care about the clients. You want to make sure that in a system where every legislative change since PACE has been designed not to promote justice but to increase the rate of convictions, that the interests of your client are protected as best you can. You do read the unused material schedule and make boring requests that make the CPS and their lawyers groan. You do take points on the admissibility of evidence not so show how clever you are but because its your job to use the law to your client’s benefit. It’s called “making a difference” which to my mind is exactly why you become a lawyer doing legal aid cases.

    Mark George Q.C.

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  5. Amelinixon Reply

    July 15, 2012 at 11:43 pm

    It is heartening to read that there are some Lawyers who work to obtain justice for their clients but who do we, the people who are not accused of illegal activity, turn to when solicitors are incompetent or who carry out cases to suit themselves rather than the client? When the case is civil matter and involves powerful interests who do we turn to when justice is denied? When we know that corruption is at work and no-one will listen and when solicitors do not seem to know right from wrong?

    The cost of justice is too high, both emotionally and financially.
    Justice is denied to many in the community and this is to the detriment of the wider community. My rose coloured glasses are no more.

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