The hidden danger to victims of crime of the proposed Legal Aid cuts.
Last night I was discussing the latest Government proposals regarding legal aid with my mum. We are at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to politics and I expected her to be fully in favour of the planned destruction of criminal legal aid. But she took a different approach, with the question “so all those years of studying, going out to police stations late at night, traveling around the country to different courts, and all that experience gained is going to go to waste?”
In fact she is right. I and all of my colleagues, both solicitors and barristers who have been working as criminal lawyers for years have built up a vast wealth of experience and skills. All of which the Ministry of Justice wants to toss into the trash. We use our experience to train and mentor those who are coming into the profession, we spend many hours talking to students, telling them why English Criminal Lawyers are admired around the World. Most of us at the Criminal Bar have also done our bit for the State. Very few young barristers make it through their first few years of practice without taking on cases for the CPS. Taking on CPS lists (the court where there can be over 40 cases a day listed- all of which have to be dealt with in some way or another) is well known as a way for young barristers to gain the experience of advocacy while growing a very thick skin. I spent many years taking on CPS work in my early practice years, and I have to say it made me able to deal with anything. On some days I would walk away feeling punch drunk from the kicking I had taken from the District Judge in the Magistrates Court due to CPS cases not having been prepared, files not being in court, or charges being incorrect, or witnesses not being warned. But it made me a much better advocate, able to problem solve and think on my feet. I only ever made the mistake of saying “I don’t know’ to a judge once. I certainly learnt my lesson, and in future would always have an answer to whatever question the judge threw at me.
So where am I leading with this? If the Ministry of Justice has its way with the proposals, there will be no opportunities for the junior end of the Bar to undertake crime in the Magistrates Courts as this will be tied up by the 4 mega firms in each area who are given the contract on the basis that they were the cheapest. The fiasco that resulted from the court interpreter contract has shown that those who are able to work on the meagre rates these mega firms pay their staff will not be up for the job, and the work will certainly not be outsourced to the junior criminal Bar. Hence, the junior criminal Bar will no longer be able to support itself and will cease to exist, taking with it all those advocates who are currently mixing criminal defence and prosecution. It is questionable whether the CPS will be able to support its court commitments without the flexibility of the young criminal bar. The fact that the CPS has been told it must take another 23% budget cut in the next 2 years will mean that there will be no scope for the CPS to employ more lawyers (who are currently employed on a salary much higher than any members of the young criminal bar can hope to earn in their first 5 years of practice).
Taking this to the next level, where will the next generation of prosecutors for the Crown Court come from? Surely the Government doesn’t suggest that barristers undertaking prosecution of serious cases can do so without having gained trial experience in the Magistrates Court. At the same time, the CPS is downgrading a lot of its Crown Advocates as a way of saving money and also accepting that many of these Crown Advocates have never undertaken a trial in the Crown Court.
Ken McDonald, the previous Director of Public Prosecutions coined the slogan ‘World Class Prosecution Service’. I wonder if victims of crime who, in a few years, are told that their cases cannot be prosecuted as there are insufficient numbers of prosecutors, will agree that our CPS is worthy of the slogan. Hence it is not only defendants and those looking to challenge the actions of the state who will suffer from these cuts, the victims of crime could actually be the biggest loser.
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