#SaveUKJustice Open Letter to the NUS on the damage the proposed Legal Aid cuts will have on students
- Its end of term, you and your housemates go into town to celebrate, one of them gets into an argument over a spilt drink and before you know it you are defending your friend who is being attacked for accidentally knocking the drink out of someone’s hand. The doormen arrive just as you are pushing the attacker away. They drag you off as they see you as the aggressor, throw you out of the pub and straight into the arms of the police who are outside. You protest your innocence, but you are arrested on suspicion of assault. In the police station you request a lawyer, explain the incident and the lawyer makes enquiries with the club, obtains the cctv footage, takes statements from your housemates, and ascertains that you were acting in self defence. The case is dropped when representations are made to the Crown Prosecution Service, and you go back to Uni at the beginning of the next term, no harm done.
POST LEGAL AID REFORMS
- Same incident, but you get to the police station, you ask for a representative, they arrive after a few hours, tell you they are very busy, they don’t have the time or the funding to search for the CCTV footage or take statements from your friends. They read the account of events that the doormen give to the police and tell you that on this account you are clearly guilty (and in any event they only get paid if you plead guilty). You try to explain, and also make it clear that if you are convicted you may not be able to return to Uni in the new term as you may be kicked off of your course, but they again tell you that on the evidence they have seen you should plead guilty. You are obviously upset about this and try to find another legal aid lawyer to represent you, one who will listen to your side of the story, but you are told that you have to stay with the original lawyer (who has told you to plead guilty) as the legal aid funding no longer allows you to change lawyers for one that you trust. The only other option is to go into court unrepresented. You go to court, plead guilty as you have been told to do, your University finds out and before you know it you have been thrown off of your course..your future plans are in tatters due to the fact you were denied the use of a fully qualified, experience legal aid lawyer who would act for you and not be a slave to balance sheets and financial targets.
Open Letter to the President of The National Union of Students
26th April 2013
Dear Liam Burns,
As I am sure you are aware, the Ministry of Justice has issued a consultation paper titled ‘Transforming Legal Aid’. In reality the proposals in this paper do nothing to transform legal aid and everything to destroy criminal legal aid, remove the opportunity to challenge the actions of the state through judicial review of state decisions, and will decimate the young criminal Bar and criminal solicitors.
I am writing this to request your assistance in informing your student membership about the impact these proposals may have on them. Firstly in taking away their rights, especially when considering that a large proportion of students will not be able to afford to pay for legal representation, hence relying on legal aid, and secondly in destroying the area of the legal profession that many of your students aspire to join, at no small expense to themselves.
I do not profess that all your members will require the services of a criminal lawyer or have need to challenge the State through a judicial review action. However, the legal system of England and Wales is prided as being one of the best in the World, and legal aid is one of the essential elements of this system. Such that if anyone is unfortunate enough to need a lawyer, one will be available to them, even if they cannot afford to pay for one privately. Under the Ministry of Justice proposals, a two tier system of representation will be created. The consultation document makes it clear that one of the current complaints of the Ministry of Justice is that many criminal lawyers provide an ‘above acceptable’ service. In other words, a privately paying client is entitled to an above acceptable service, but a legally aided one is only entitled to ‘acceptable’.
The destruction of criminal legal aid, and the profession for young criminal lawyers cannot be seen in isolation of each other. If the Government presses ahead with its proposal, this will, without doubt result in the destruction of many solicitor firms, and a drastic slimming down of the young criminal Bar. To put it bluntly, it is like the Government informing medical students who are reaching the final stages of their studies and training that there will no longer be any GP’s and that all the studying and training has been wasted.
A Legal Practice Course student explains it. “As a law graduate due to begin my training contract with a criminal law firm in eleven weeks’ time I find the proposals put forward by the Ministry of Justice wholly terrifying.
For many of my fellow law students, criminal law was what attracted them to study law in the first place. Put simply, it is hard to get a training contract, harder still to gain pupillage and the pay for both is appalling. Those of us heading for practice in criminal law know we won’t be earning as much as half of the salaries of our alumni cohort who chose commercial law. We know the hours are long and the work emotionally exhausting. But we accepted that. We worked hard throughout university for four (in some cases five) years ever-ready and keen to take up the challenge this unique area of law presents. We are passionate about the criminal justice system and dedicated to helping the people caught within it. If the Ministry of Justice proposals are implemented my future job will cease to exist by the time I qualify, replaced by underpaid under-qualified battery farmed legal advisors operating under cut-price government contracts delivering a sub-standard quality of service to clients who will no longer be able to seek advice from their chosen lawyer. The detriment this will have on vulnerable clients is immeasurable.
Please give us a chance to be assets to our clients and chosen profession by helping us show the Ministry of Justice how damaging these proposals will be.”
I urge your student members to join the criminal legal professions in the fight to Save UK Justice, and also to save the future profession of thousands of students, by signing the Save Uk Justice epetition http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/48628 . If it reaches 100,000 signatures it is hoped that these proposals will be debated in the House of Commons. Students can also express their views by writing to their MP, or emailing me firstname.lastname@example.org.
A selection of blogs on the proposals and the likely impact can be found at www.saveukjustice.net and updates can be found on twitter #saveukjustice and #notoPCT.
I thank you for taking the time to read this letter.
Bar Council Pro Bono Lawyer of 2012