Saving UK Justice – what does it mean to the person in the street?

Following the Government’s announcement last week that it intends to impose further extensive cuts to legal aid, there has been a lot of discussion on social media about the impact of this on the legal profession, in particular the criminal lawyers.  But the public need to be aware of the devastating  impact that these cuts will have on them.

My main concern in all of these cuts is the impact they will have on clients and potential clients, and the fact that once the cuts are implemented, there will be no going back.  I am under no illusions that a change of Government will reverse the cuts, all that will happen is that the next Government will blame the previous one, but say that there is now no possibility to change the legal funding rules to benefit the client.  The public cannot be complacent in this, and should not believe everything they read in the press about ‘Fat Cat’ lawyers.  This is just the Ministry of Justice’s way of hiding the true damage that lies ahead if the cuts are implemented.

Let me give some examples of what I have seen recently, as a result of the last swathe of legal aid cuts and the changes of procedure for assessing legal aid:

Last week I sat in a court watching a defendant who had to represent himself.  He was a student and had been accused of stealing money from his part time employer.  His legal aid had been denied as the administrators in the Magistrates court office, who have no experience of law and legal argument, had decided that his case did not satisfy the Interest of Justice rules – it would appear that he had not ticked the right box on the form which he had completed himself.    He pleaded guilty, and then when giving his mitigation said that he had collected the money from clients that evening in a bar, and had left the bar a few hours later, possibly having had a few too many beers, leaving he money behind.  When he realised and went back for the money it had gone.    At this stage the legal advisor raised the question as to whether this amounted to theft, but the Magistrates decided that the defendant had entered his plea and so that should stand as he clearly wanted to plead guilty.

The reality is that if the defendant was telling the truth, he was not guilty of theft.  A lawyer would have advised him of this, and would also have advised that theft from an employer is a very serious conviction as most employers will not consider employing someone who may steal from them. As a student, such a conviction could be disastrous for any future career.  The fact this defendant was unrepresented meant that his chances of employment and any other activities which require a Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) check are severely limited.

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An accounts clerk was dismissed from her employer, a solicitors firm, due to making a complaint to them that she believed client funds were being used to pay staff wages.  She had tried to present her case and represent herself as she was unable to get assistance under the Legal Help scheme for preparing her case.  She had to represent herself in court, and during one of the initial hearings had been warned by the judge that she was making a very serious allegation against a law firm and should think very carefully about it, and that if she continued with the claim she could face high costs, and that in any event he couldn’t really understand her claim as she had drafted it herself.  In essence – solicitors firms don’t do that sort of thing, and there must have been another reason for dismissing you, you must have done something wrong.

A few weeks later, the Solicitors Regulatory Authority closed down the Solicitors firm for exactly the reasons she had argued in court.  Had she been able to get legal help in formulating her claim, the tribunal might have taken her more seriously.

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A football fan was charged with pitch invasion. He was denied legal aid due to the fact it was a fine only matter and therefore it was decided (again by the administrators in the Magistrates office) that  there was no legal argument in his case.  His account was that he had been pushed onto the pitch during fan celebrations.  He was an away fan and so had to travel back to court for his case, a journey of over 150 miles round trip.  He attended on the first trial date, but was told that no witnesses were present for the prosecution, the case was adjourned off.  He then attended a second time to be told by the Prosecution that they now had cctv and it showed him clearly entering the pitch area and that he should plead guilty.  He pleaded guilty without watching the cctv  footage, taking the prosecution at their word.  he was fined and received a football banning order with very stringent conditions, such that he could not go into, or travel through his home town on match days for the next 5 years, even though he lived in his home town.  In effect creating house arrest on match days, and adding a football banning order (which is equated with violent offences by many employers) onto his CRB. He was also told to pay prosecution costs of £500 and did not get his travel to court reimbursed.

He contacted a solicitor to see if he could appeal his case.  The solicitor looked at the cctv and realised that it clearly showed him being pushed on to the pitch by others and that meant he had a defence.  He submitted an appeal, and the Prosecution decided not to challenge the appeal, which meant that the conviction and football banning order were void. Had he been entitled to legal representation he probably would have had the case thrown out prior to going to court and not have incurred the stress of the case, costs or travel costs.

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These are just a very small sample of the injustices that are already taking place due to the previous legal aid costs, and changes in procedures, such as giving the power to decide on legal aid to administrators with no legal knowledge.  Things will only get worse with the latest round of intended cuts.

  • Police station duty solicitor work is being tendered, and will be given to the lowest bidders, and only 4 firms in each area will be successful, and it is anticipated that at least one firm in each area will be an Alternative Business Service, so not even a solicitors firm.  The impact of this will be that when a person is arrested and taken to the police station (and lets face it, that can happen to any one of us at any time) they will not be able to choose their solicitor, they will be given the duty solicitor, who may already have a number of clients to see.  That will mean a delay for an arrested person before being seen, and also the fact that they will probably get a quick chat and nothing more, due to the “legal’ representative being overstretched with clients and underfunded.
  • If a person is charged with an offence, unless it is a serious offence, they will usually be bailed to attend court at a date in the future.  For most people this is the time they start asking round for word of mouth recommendations of lawyers.  After all, most people, if they have a choice, do not select the first builder they see advertised in the local newspaper when they want an extension built.  This will no longer be possible, once charged the person will have to stay with the firm representing them at the police station as their representative.  And those will be the, so called, lucky ones, as most defendants will now find that they no longer qualify for legal aid if they are working or members of their household are working.
  • In cases of specialism, having to stay with the firm who attended the police station can have a huge detrimental impact on the case. For example, football offences are quite an unusual area of law, and require specialist legal advice.  I work with such solicitors who pick up clients who have been represented in the police station by a duty solicitor but who then want a football specialist to take on their case.  As specialists we not only have the knowledge of the law, but also the policing tactics of the area, and connections with the football intelligence units and the football clubs and supporters networks.  All of this helps the case to run smoothly, and ensures the best possible representation for the football fan.  The intended cuts will mean that football fans can no longer chose their specialist lawyer, but will have to take pot luck with the lawyer they are given.
  • The tendering doesn’t stop at the police station, but also applies to the work in Magistrates Court.  In effect this will mean that in the small number of cases where a person does qualify for legal aid, they won’t  the defendant necessarily get quality they just get the cheapest.  A bit like the budget food brands, some of the items are reasonable, but most are of poor quality.  No longer will a defendant have the opportunity to meet their solicitor or talk to them on the phone before hand, but will just have to turn up on the day of court and hope for the best.  When a defendant’s livelihood is at stake due to the fact the State (with all it weight and money) is prosecuting, is this fair?
  • For the majority of those arrested and charged, they will now have to pay for their own legal representation, or represent themselves.

These are just some of the likely impact of the cuts, I shall write more in the coming weeks, but I don’t want to overburden my readers in one go.  The Government media spin states that the legal aid system is being abused by criminals who use it time and time again.  But my experience is that most of my clients are working, or have worked, and have paid their taxes and national insurance.  I hear the same thing time and time again..”I never thought this would happen to me’.  With the meagre legal aid system that the Government wants to provide..those ‘I never thought it would happen to me’ people are going to have to face the courts alone, and unprotected, and the consequences will be devastating not just on them but on those around them.

More information can be found on the intended cuts in the blog below this one.

So what can the public do to help?

  • Sign the Save UK Justice epetition Save UK Justice E-Petition
  • Write to your MP stating your concerns
  • Write to me at agurden@1gis.co.uk and I will compile the responses into a dossier to submit with a response to the Ministry of Justice (I will anonymise all responses before submitting)
  • If you have already suffered due to the legal aid cuts, let me know via email agurden@1gis.co.uk.
  • Spread the word to others and encourage them to act.

The consultation period for these intended cuts ends at the beginning of June 2013.  There is a lot of work going on behind the scene by lawyers and their representatives, but we need the help of the public..without you..legal aid is doomed.

ABOUT ME:  I am not a ‘Fat Cat’ lawyer.  Infact in terms of my earnings from legal work I hardly make a living, which is my choice as I undertake  a huge amount of pro bono work as well as doing a large amount of unpaid work on my legal aid cases.  In many cases, when I compare the amount of work I do to the amount I get paid on a legal aid rate, I do not make the minimum wage.

I am not fighting this Save UK Justice fight to protect my income, I am doing so to protect my current and future clients.  I fight fiercely for my clients in court, no matter what the case, or who they are, and I do not see this fight as any different.  However, this time round I need the assistance of those clients and future clients….Remember..one day it could be you..

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About gurdena

Social Justice Lawyer, interested in all things contentious. Specialising in criminal law, and anything criminal justice related, also employment law. Door tenant at 1 Grays Inn Square chambers. Find out more at www.alisongurden.com

One response to “Saving UK Justice – what does it mean to the person in the street?”

  1. Lawstudent says :

    Whilst I completely back the arguments in this article and disagree with the cuts, your comment in the first case study regarding magistrates courts staff deciding the interests of justice test is completely unfair. Although I can only vouch for my experience working in a legal aid office in one court, the staff are highly trained in this area and some ARE legally trained and I for one have an idea about the law. I am looking for a training contract and took the job to pay the bills. The interests of justice test is fairly applied in all cases based on the reasons submitted. If it is refused, there is a chance to appeal in court where people who do have a law background can reassess and grant it if they see fit. You must be aware of that. They legal advisors help in these situations as much as they can. If you do not think your local court processes applications fairly and accurately, I suggest you raise a formal complaint. The staff are not there to fight against granting legal aid and do not have quotas of grants and refusals to fulfill. They are there to assist in whatever way they can.

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