Legal Aid

Paul Harris speech to CBA Rally

PUBLISHED November 18, 2013


16 NOVEMBER 2013

I am speaking on behalf of both the London Criminal Courts Solicitors' Association and the Criminal Law Solicitors' Association.

Before I address the core issues I want to make three very clear and important points:

1. Both solicitors' associations believe that a proper effective and quality justice system needs an independent and strong bar.

2. We thank you for your support in the campaign so far, together we can win this battle, separately we may lose.

3. As with our sister organisation the Criminal Law Solicitors' Association the LCCSA strongly support the Bar's bold and principled decision not to renew VHCC contracts at the new rates. Whilst we accept it is a matter for individual firms it is our view that solicitors should not accept returns and act as HCAs in such cases. We regret inevitable disruption to the courts, we do not want it, but believe that any disruption caused will be nothing compared to the long term damage done to our justice system if cuts are implemented. We are in this together; we are opposed to cuts in any shape or form to VHCC, to the advocate graduated fee, to the litigator graduate fee, to the Magistrates' court fee and to the police station fee.

The police station is a very good place to start. That is where our work begins. What happens at the police station can have a huge significance on the outcome of a case. Even the most simple and straightforward case including travel and initial phone calls is likely to be at least 2 hours. Many other cases take much longer. In a serious case such as murder there are usually several interviews spread over a couple of days. Disclosure is drip fed, the suspect whether or not he has experienced a stay in a police station before will need considerable attention and advice, potentially what he says may determine where he spends the next 15 to 35 years of his life and for this Mr Grayling is proposing a fixed fee of £160 inc VAT, whereas at present in London its about £240 + VAT. In London that represents a cut of about a third. It was already an iniquitous system in that there was an escape clause when hourly rates would be paid from 3 x basic fee although we lost the two thirds! But he is also removing the escape clause!

Imagine £160 for potentially 3 or 4 days at Paddington Green. Last week I had to call an electrician out at night, his fee was £140 call out fee which covered the first hour and then £70 per hour. I obviously made sure he was finished in the hour. Plumbers and electricians deserve to be paid properly when going out at night. Solicitors do not deserve to be paid less. I hope Mr Grayling is listening but my fear is whilst the lights may be on there is nobody home.

For Magistrates' court the fee will be £258 whether guilty plea or trial. There is an escape once a large number of hours has been accumulated, this fee is derisory, what about the client in custody who may have two bail applications, a Crown court bail application, visits in prison, a trial, all for £258, this is not about fat cat lawyers, in fact lawyers relying on this work will be very slim cats, this work will have to be done at a loss. Some of you may know this example which we have highlighted of a public order case with 10 hours prep and hearing, the fee for that case was £440, and counsel got £180. In April 2015 £258, a loss of £182, but the point is that the £440 was paid in 1978. We have lost sight of how extreme cuts have been and the fact that every case attracts travel and waiting which is unpaid. WE ARE ALREADY SUBSIDISING THE CJS WITH OUR UNPAID TIME.

Crown cases where cases are under 500 pages are the most interesting. A proper analysis of these figures provides overwhelming evidence that we are being PLACED UNDER POWERFUL ECONOMIC PRESSURE to make our clients plead guilty.

A 3 day Section 18 trial with 200 PPE under the new proposals will be paid at a fee which is 53% less than what we get paid now. If the defendant pleads guilty we will get a 12% rise.

For a 3 day trial involving a serious sexual offence with 300 pages, a guilty plea will earn you an increase of 59% on the current fee and a 36% reduction on a trial.

Mr Grayling says we know that lawyers always adhere to their professional duty and would never advise clients to plead guilty for the wrong reasons, but Mr Grayling surely this scheme presents a conflict of interest between the lawyer and his client. Surely we have to tell our client in addition to advising on evidence, that you should know we get paid the same if you plead guilty or not guilty.

The MOJ have a responsibility to devise a fair and proper fee structure which obviously pays properly for the work which is necessarily and reasonably done if the right to a fair trial and equality of arms are to have substance. A fair and accountable justice system is a key pillar of an effective democracy.

These proposals are not just about fee cuts, they are about a reduction in state accountability, a vibrant high quality legal profession will cease to exist, the vulnerable who need most protection will not have it, access to justice will be limited and we will be left with a sham of a justice system.

The proposals re advocacy fees are a disgrace, you are expected year on year to do more for less. The options presented for advocacy with more and more cuts are unacceptable. Going to court for successive hearings for just over £40 is simply beyond reason and we do not even need the examples of electricians and plumbers because these are rates less than the minimum wage. The CLSA and LCCSA applaud Nigel Lithman's stance and thank Michael Turner for all the work he did in bringing the legal professions together.

If things are not bad enough for me as a criminal solicitor doing mainly legal aid work, it gets worse, in my spare time I am a Spurs fan, many of you are probably thinking how can he be that lucky suffering every which way, but the reason I bring it up is not to make you feel sorry for me, but to let you know that the last time we received a rise in legal aid rates was the last time Spurs finished above Arsenal in the league, now who remembers when on earth that was.

Over the last 7 months the CLSA and LCCSA and CBA have all worked very hard to campaign. Put to one side the Law Society, SOLICITORS DO NOT WANT CUTS. On March 1st Mr Grayling makes the first cut 8.75%, we told him on Wednesday not to do it, he doesn't need to.

A few weeks ago the Association launched a pledge for all solicitors' firms owners and heads of chambers to sign. Nigel Lithman read out the wording of the pledge before I spoke.

There is a website, criminal lawyers united, its very user friendly, over 50% of firms have signed and I think about 30 chambers, we want everyone to sign, I would ask you to go on and say you have signed and then let all the solicitors know that you have signed.

What we do want to do with the pledge is to send out the clearest signal that we will not stand by and watch the erosion of the CJS and therefore of core freedoms that generations have fought for. Its easy to draw a line in the sand ? it's harder to hold it ? but the time has surely come.