You may by now have started to hear rumblings that lawyers are not happy. You may not have paid very much attention, thinking that it was probably just lawyers concerned for themselves – you might have read the articles in the press about how many squillions of pounds Tarquin Gosh-Watt QC has earned defending criminals. You probably thought it didn’t matter much to you. There’s no easy way to tell you this but you couldn’t be more wrong.
One reason why lawyers are up in arms – trust me it took something fairly monumental to unite barristers and solicitors – is that they are the ones best placed to know how badly this will affect you and your families. After all, it’s what they do day in, day out.
I’ve been working in the criminal justice system for over 30 years. First as a police officer, then a detective and later on re-training to become a police station representative advising people under arrest. I now work as an editor and part of my job is to read the judgments from criminal cases that are heard in the Court of Appeal. That means that I get to see where things have gone wrong in the system. Miscarriages of justice both big and small, wrongful convictions, sentences too long. That sort of thing. Of course, I also see many judgments where sentences are confirmed as being the right length, and appeals kicked out, the judges upholding the convictions.
Relationship of trust
In the police station, I would represent people who asked for me or my firm directly, or I would be on call on a rota as a ‘duty solicitor’. If you are arrested or interviewed the police will offer you a solicitor, and if you didn’t know who to ask for, you would be offered the duty solicitor.
By and large, people who are arrested tend to stick to a solicitor they know. They build up a relationship of trust. Those relationships benefit the criminal justice system; people very often assume that defence lawyers are only concerned with ‘getting people off’.
In fact, whilst it is true that lawyers are obliged to act on their client’s instructions, a considerable amount of time is spent in advising on and negotiating guilty pleas. A lawyer’s job is to test the evidence, but if that evidence is strong, a defendant may be penalised for not pleading guilty at an early stage. A person is more likely to accept advice from a solicitor they trust, and, yes it’s true, less likely to try and have them over.
I took the work very seriously indeed. ‘Duty clients’ were very often people being arrested for the first time, or those with mental health issues, and they required a very high level of client care indeed. My mantra was: ‘Is this the advice I would give to a member of my own family?’
On a great many occasions I’ve been asked personally to represent people, including police officers, because they knew that I would do my very best to support them in what were sometimes dreadful circumstances. Police officers are very picky in their choice of legal representation – who better to know the system and it’s tiger traps, and they understand only too well the value of good legal advice, someone to fight their corner. You see, it’s not only legal advice that people need in the police station, it’s someone to calm them down, hold their hand, and tell them that whilst it might be one of the worst, most frightening days of their lives, you’re going to do everything you can to see them through.
I’m talking about clients such as:
And so on, and so on.
Of course, the right legal advice from an experienced lawyer is vital. But so is the ability to get that advice across to someone who is mentally ill, or too young, or old, or distressed to understand it easily. That was something I took pride in being able to do and I was greatly privileged to be able to help people at a time of such need. Their families, often waiting outside desperate for news, also needed support. I often imagined how I might feel if it were my child locked in a cell and I couldn’t get to them to comfort them. A judgment recently spoke of a child with autism kept in the same cell block as adults and distressed by their shouting. Too awful to contemplate, but true I’m afraid. Doing the best job I could meant that I gained a reputation, which led to further recommendations. It was necessary for me to gain the trust of my own clients by doing a good job for them, be they guilty or not guilty. Our continuing survival in the marketplace depended upon it.
So, how will that change?
Under the proposals there won’t be any choice over who represents you in the police station. There won’t be small high street firms of local lawyers with local knowledge and a vested interest in doing a good job in order to earn repeat business. That’s because there won’t be any repeat business. The government needs to save money from the legal aid budget, and it is proposing a system of price competitive tendering (PCT). It intends to cut the current suppliers of legal services from 1400 to around 400. The new contracts are likely to be awarded to the lowest bidder; it’s suggested that those bidders will be companies such as Tesco or G4S who in the short term will be able to swallow what are likely to be huge losses. Companies with no connection to the law are looking to enter the legal services market as so-called alternative business structures (or ABSs) owing to last year’s de-regulation (under the Legal Services Act 2007). Small specialist firms on the high street won’t be able to bid because the contracts will be economically unviable. They will simply shut up shop.
So, at one of the very worst times of your life, you won’t be able to choose the person to see you through. You will be allocated a solicitor possibly as randomly as according to the first letter of your surname, or your month of birth.
If you happen to re-offend because, for example, your mental health condition brings you to the notice of police, you won’t be able to have the same solicitor. You’ll have to start again from scratch.
Doesn’t it seem ever so slightly crazy that you can choose your GP, your dentist, your surgeon, but you will have absolutely no say in what might be the most stressful event of your life? According to the government, removing choice is necessary to make the proposals economically viable – and that the standard of service will be no more than ‘acceptable’.
Chillingly, there will be a financial incentive for these solicitors to get you to plead guilty at an early stage.
The next stage in the process if you are charged with an offence is that you will appear at the Magistrates’ Court and then depending on the type of offence, possibly the Crown Court. In the Magistrates’ Court you will be represented by a solicitor, generally speaking, (again, no choice as to who) although sometimes if you elect to have a trial you may be represented by a junior barrister. Whether you have to pay or not depends on whether you receive legal aid, dependent upon your earnings. Unless you have a disposable joint income of less than £37,500 you will not qualify for legal aid and there will be a stark choice to be made between paying for a solicitor, or representing yourself.
The process is daunting, the law complicated, the language arcane. It’s difficult for lawyers and even judges to keep up with the law, so what hope does someone representing themselves have of negotiating their way through?
Convictions, even for relatively minor offences matter. They are career ending, reputation damaging, stress inducing and people can and do go to prison. Justice matters, not only in the headline grabbing cases, but to each and every individual.
If the offence is more serious, your case may go to the Crown Court. Over many years spent in conferences with barristers and my clients, or sitting behind counsel during trials, I got to know many of them well. I came to know who would be patient with a teenager with ADHD (attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder), or with a particularly anxious client. For my client charged with assisting her daughter’s suicide I was able to instruct a barrister with specialist knowledge of medical matters which was vital to an effective defence. She was in the end acquitted of attempted murder, the CPS heavily criticised for ever bringing the case.
Under the proposals, not only will those relationships fall away but the independent Bar is in danger of disappearing altogether. The cuts to fees will mean that it will become financially unviable for junior and middle ranking barristers to continue to do publicly funded work. In simple terms, it will cost them more to get to work than they will be paid for their attendance. With student loans and debts from years of expensive study they just cannot afford to pay for the privilege of going to work. Thousands of law students will be vying for disappearing pupillage places, meaning fewer new lawyers coming to the Bar. This wholesale dismantling of the justice system is incredibly shortsighted. Barristers traditionally both defend and prosecute, the best in the profession going on to become Queens Counsel, instructed in the most serious of cases such as the murder of a child, or they become judges. The law in England is common law, meaning that it is challenged and crafted by the decisions of those eminent lawyers who started out as pupils so many years before, in turn crafted by their pupil masters, in all likelihood the most eminent counsel of their day.
Those in the know realise how vital it is that there are lawyers, independent of the government, brave enough and experienced enough to challenge the law when it is wrong, on behalf of the weak, and the poor, and the vulnerable. Lawyers experienced enough to prosecute effectively on behalf of the victim, assuring the integrity so vital to justice. Something that the government either amazingly doesn’t realise or chooses to ignore in the relentless pursuit of cuts, whatever the real cost.
There’s no easy way to tell you this, but it’s time you woke up, realised that too, and got behind them.
Sign the petition HERE.