Last week 90 barristers took to the streets of Birmingham to protest about cuts to legal aid and the impact on their profession.
James Turner, chair of the criminal law committee at Birmingham Law Society, takes a look at how those cuts will impact on defence solicitors and the public.
The Government has published proposals to radically cut funding for criminal legal aid. These follow several years of chipping away at the already overstretched legal aid budget.
The cuts threaten the closure of hundreds of firms of solicitors nationwide. In turn, solicitors and barristers face bankruptcy and their staff redundancy.
For the public, the cuts will result in a reduction in the scope and quality of the service lawyers can provide.
It is deeply worrying that the Government concentrates on the cost, not the value of the service provided. The criminal defence lawyers affected are tasked with representing some of the most vulnerable people in our society. When justice is not done it results in higher costs for tax payers, resulting, for example, in expensive appeal proceedings and payments of compensation. Perhaps more importantly, it results in the human cost to those affected by wrongful convictions including the defendants and their families, and society as a whole for failing in the duty to administer a fair justice system.
Everyone arrested and detained by the police is entitled to free and independent legal advice. Legal aid is also provided to fund advice and representation before the Magistrates’ and Crown Courts. Not everyone accused of a criminal offence is guilty. You could be forgiven for thinking that you don’t need these lawyers, that is until you or a member of your family do. Thousands of people every year depend on these lawyers to guide them through the maze of complicated criminal proceedings, without which help they would have to attempt to defend themselves.
Imagine what it’s like as a solicitor, being called at three o’clock in the morning to leave your home to advise a person who has been arrested by the police.
You would probably expect that solicitor to be paid some sort of bonus for working outside normal office hours? You might expect them to receive a high hourly rate of pay, or time off in lieu? You may be surprised to learn that the firm employing that lawyer earns a fixed fee for the attendance. Under the latest proposals that fee will be cut to around £200, including 20 per cent VAT. That is irrespective of the number of hours spent in attendance. It is a flat fee, ignoring the complexity of the case and the particular vulnerabilities of the client. It includes the solicitor’s time spent travelling to and from the police station and any costs she/he incurs to do so. There is no time off or respite for the solicitor, who then faces a full day at work the following day.
Obviously the firm of solicitors has overheads costs back at the office to cover. So, the present market rate of payment to the solicitor attending is around £75 before tax. Would your doctor make a home visit for such a fee? Could you hire a plumber to fix a broken boiler so cheaply? Bear in mind that the attendance at the police station is likely to take several hours for anything more than the most simple of cases.
The present cuts are affecting every area of the criminal justice system, not just defence lawyers.
In April the present Probation Service National Trusts will be replaced with a new National Probation Service focussing on the most serious offenders. Much of the remaining offender management will be hived off to private companies. One only has to consider the mess made of the outsourcing of interpreters and curfew monitoring to have grave reservations about that step.
Meanwhile, the Crown Prosecution Service has reduced the numbers of experienced lawyers employed in a wave of voluntary redundancies. More worrying still is the proposal to cut the funding of Drug Intervention Program teams. Those teams work with defendants who have tested positive for use of serious addictive drugs. Their work is vital in helping to reduce drug dependency and the acquisitive crime often committed by defendants addicted to heroin and cocaine. Cuts which undermine efforts to rehabilitate offenders are damaging to communities in the long run.
A robust criminal justice system is the backbone of any civilised society. To impose cuts which threaten the viability of those committed to representing defendants undermines that system. If the proposed cuts are brought in we will no longer be able to say with pride that we boast the finest justice system in the world.
Lord Macdonald, the former director of public prosecutions, recently gave his views on justice secretary Christopher Grayling’s proposals: “I fear that Mr Grayling is in danger of destroying something that he doesn’t fully understand which is a criminal system which is as good as any in the world, which is fair and which supports people who don’t have money as well as people who do.”
It is a sentiment echoed by those of us practicing in criminal law.