LCCSA News, Legal Aid

Paul Harris's speech to the Bar Council on 08/02/2014

PUBLISHED February 12, 2014

Thank you for inviting me to speak today.
I believe I am speaking on behalf of most solicitors, but particularly the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association and the Criminal Law Solicitors Association. ( As I have said before, but repeat today, both Solicitors Associations believe that a proper effective and quality justice system needs an independent and strong Bar.
If Mr Grayling has achieved anything, he has driven the professions of solicitors and the Bar together in a way that has not been seen for many years. We must stand together side by side fighting for justice. It’s not about the solicitors supporting the Bar, or the Bar supporting the solicitors, or about us leading you or you leading us! It is about us all working together leading our professions in a united movement to try and save the Justice System.
In this regard I am very pleased that the National Justice Committee has been set up. The committee meets on a weekly basis and comprises the leadership of the Criminal Bar Association, Criminal Law Solicitors Association, The London Criminal Courts Solicitors association, the circuit leaders, justice alliance and LAPG with the Law Society and Bar Counsel having observer status.
Advocacy fees are a disgrace. Each year Advocates are expected to do more for less. Going to court for successive hearings for just over £40 is beyond reason and we applaud the work of the Criminal Bar Association in their opposition to these proposals.
Let’s be frank; Mr Grayling’s Ministry of Justice is quite simply not fit for purpose. If an interpreter turns up at court on time and can actually translate to an acceptable court standard, this is the exception rather than the rule. Successive scandals concerning G4S and Serco demonstrate quite clearly a high level of incompetence and inability to deliver the essential requirements of an effective Justice System.
We are united in fighting not just the cuts but the political ethos that underpins them. The slash and burn approach to police station rates tells us exactly what the government think of police station advice, the first line of defence for those the state investigates and prosecutes. Under Grayling’s new proposals legal representatives are to be paid £160 for every police station case. This represents a cut of nearly 35%. What happens at a police station can have a huge significance on the outcome of a case, even the most simply and straightforward case including travel and phone calls can take in excess of two hours. Many cases take much longer and in a serious case such as murder, there are inevitably usually several interviews spread over a couple of days or increasingly weeks or months with predominantly young people successively rebailed. There is no escape clause and of course on many occasions we are dealing with vulnerable people with learning or mental health difficulties who require considerable time and attention to be properly represented. What the legal representative does at the police station may in fact determine whether any charges are brought at all and that fee covers everything,.
Talk of advocacy fees and police station rates is often arcane for people outside our world. We need to shout from the rooftops that this is about a reduction of state accountability, this is not just about the fact that solicitors and barristers are having their fees reduced again it’s about the state substantially increasing its power over the individual whilst at the same time removing the safety net for the most vulnerable, for the person inadvertently in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was contacted by someone recently with exemplary good character, in full-time employment; she also helped out with sports, coaching at the local Youth Centre. She had an argument with another woman at school picking up time and that woman made an allegation of assault – the police wanted her to come down and informed me on the phone that this could simply be dealt with by way of a caution.
This easy and cheaper way out for someone not eligible for legal aid in the Magistrates Court who had absolutely nothing wrong would have affected the client’s CRB status and voluntary coaching work, it would have affected her ability to travel to America where she has family, as she would have to apply for a different visa. The police weren’t really interested in what happened, they just wanted to tick a box. After we had been to the police station, she gave a full account and we made representations, the police took no further action. No caution, nothing. Proper representation on legal aid at the police station had a huge effect on this woman’s life and of course we all benefit that she is able to carry on her voluntary work.
Under Mr Grayling’s new proposals – there will be £258 fee for Magistrates Court work whether it is a guilty plea or trial. This is for the whole case, if the defendant is in custody, it could involve several court appearances, a crown court bail application, prison visits etc. I have mentioned this example before, a public order case, ten hours preparation and hearing, the fee for that case was £448.00, Counsel received £180.00. In April 2015 this will be £258.00, the point is that £448 fee was paid in 1978. We have reached the point where resources and fees are at their irreducible minimum.
The proposals for Crown Court cases where the page count is under 500 are a compelling indicator of the true nature of the strategy of the MOJ. The proper analysis of these figures provide overwhelming evidence that we are being placed under powerful economic pressure to make our client’s plead guilty.
A three day GBH with intent trial with 200 pages under the new proposals we will be paid a fee for a trial which is 53% less than what we get paid now. If a defendant pleads guilty, there will be a 12% rise. There are many other examples, a case involving a serious sexual offence with 300 pages, a guilty plea will earn you an increase of 59% on the current fee, and 36% reduction on a trial. This fee scheme presents a conflict of interest between the lawyer and his client; surely we have to tell our client after advising on the evidence that we have an economic interest in you pleading guilty.
The Government do not need to make these cuts. The recent report prepared by Oxford Economics demonstrates that even on the most cautious view of declining volumes the vast majority of these cuts will be delivered if they do nothing. We have still not had the full effect of previous cuts which are still trickling through the system in respect of older bigger cases so a proportion of the savings (as the lord chancellor likes to say) have already been banked.
But this isn’t really about cuts, it’s about ideology – we have already seen the LASPO Act, the collapse of civil legal aid and a huge reduction in access to justice, we cannot have a proper justice system if you keep making cuts, the restrictions in relation to Judicial Review, making it very difficult to challenge the Government on anything. Prisoners have no rights at all., children in custody who now have no legal help in obtaining housing on release, mothers who cannot litigate regarding mother and baby units.
The family courts are grinding to a halt through cases being conducted by litigants in person. The rights of the individual to bring actions against the state and defend actions against the state is constantly eroded Up and down the country women trying to get out of abusive relationships appear unrepresented in court to be faced by their partner. The job that we all do to a large extent is to protect the rights of these individuals and these proposals are fatal to a quality Justice System. The rights of all but the most wealthy to defend themselves against the state are being ripped away.
The London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association campaign committee recognised this was not just about criminal defence solicitors and barristers, it was about the people that they act for and not just in criminal matters. As part of that they were party to setting up the Justice Alliance which brought together civil and criminal lawyers together with those who need and use legal aid. Over 50 organisations including unions, charities and campaigning groups united to oppose these cuts. Since its inception the Justice alliance has been very effective, organising a celebration of the birth of legal aid outside the bailey, lobbying the lib dems to vote to stay the proposals and have now launched a petition supported by Joanna Lumley which i hope you have all signed
Our campaigning over the last year led to Grayling abandoning Price Competitive Tendering and the removal of client choice BUT what is left is not much better. The Justice System is in meltdown, through systematic unnecessary cuts. This is our last chance to stand together to stop t his and we can and we must.
On Tuesday this week the group of solicitors including solicitors from the representative organisations will meet with Mr Grayling. Last week the Chairman of the Justice Committee who I have previously referred to wrote to Mr Grayling stating we wanted to engage with him in a positive way to find alternative savings in greater efficiencies and asking him to suspend any further cuts. So far he is only willing to meet with solicitors and the bar separately. I can speculate as to why?
If we do not get a positive response and a willingness to properly engage, then Solicitors representative organisations have identified the next stage and date in the campaign. Together with the Bar we will demonstrate to Mr Grayling that we will not surrender on behalf of the people we represent. Legal aid was introduced in 1949 to enable all citizens to have access to the courts whatever their means, these proposals remove that right, any lawyer solicitor or barrister practising whatever ever type of law who has any belief in fair access to justice for all should support our campaign, should write to their MP should sign petitions, and if necessary join a united legal community in protest at the sacrifice of what was a proud justice system.