Is £52.50 too much to ask of the tax payer to ensure a 16 year old is released from jail and able to sit her GCSEs? Why the Save UK Justice campaign is so important.

Once again I am wading into the legal aid debate.  This blog is not aimed at lawyers, what I have to say in this blog is nothing new to them.  But this will be new to the majority of the public who are being bombarded with misinformation by the Ministry of Justice about the legal aid bill.  This is a longwinded explanation, but please bear with it.  The Ministry of Justice has added a response to the Save UK Justice epetition set up by criminal lawyers.  In that response it is stated that the firms given the contracts for legal aid work will have to show they have competent and capable lawyers.  In my eyes, competent and capable is not enough, those of us who have been doing this work for years do it because we are committed to our clients, and I like to think that all the criminal lawyers I know are way above competent and capable – they are experienced, passionate and dedicated, they understand that with clients, the law is actually only a small part of the service.

Last week I was in the youth court representing a 16 year old youth (X) who had been charged with an offence of violence on the basis of a drive by identity carried out by a shaken and upset teenage victim.   X had been remanded in custody.  I arrived at court, to find X’s very distraught parents, and quite understandably so.  Their child who had never been in trouble before, had been held in the police station overnight – and that in itself was enough to send mum over the edge.  Her child had been locked in a cell all night, on their own, in a large police station in an area where hardened criminals are arrested daily.   Worse still, X was a good student, predicted A and B grades in GCSE exams, one of which was taking place that day!

In the cells I met X.  To use the phrase ‘a rabbit in headlights‘ is an understatement.  Having been held in the police station all night, and then transferred in a prison van to a cell in the court, searched in the police station, and again in the court cells, denied an opportunity to speak to mum and dad, and denied the use of the phone, and then told that the case would be ‘heard when its heard’, by the time I arrived in the cells, just after 9am, so much damage had been done it took me 15 minutes just to calm X down enough to get any sense out of her.  It took another 30 minutes to get all of the information I needed out of her.  Anyone who has teenage children or who regularly deals with teenagers will understand that the task of drawing information from them is not a simple task, made even worse when it is accompanied by sobbing at regular intervals and the need for constant reassurance that X would not have to go to prison.

Having obtained the information I needed from X and carried out more reassurance, and requested that a female custody officer in the cells take X a drink and sit with her for a while just to keep a check on her, I headed back up to see mum and dad.  I had to then start the whole reassurance again with mum who bombarded me with questions – Was X ok?  Had X eaten breakfast?  Had I told X that mum and dad were there for her?  In the meantime, dad paced the floor, getting more and more agitated and frustrated.  I set dad on the task of contacting the school and finding out what could be done about X missing the GCSE exam, and calmed mum by asking her to tell me more about X.

In between this, I had passed word to the court that I was ready to get X into court as soon as possible, and had negotiated with the Prosecutor that this was not a case where X needed to be remanded in custody, and agreed bail conditions.  X’s case was called on by 11.30am and I explained to the court what I had found out about X, how I saw weaknesses in the Prosecution case, not least the fact that the victim did not get a good look at her attacker’s face, but could describe the attacker’s clothing and bag.  What she had actually described was a school uniform and bag which which was worn by at least 500 girls in that area.  In which case it was highly probable that the victim had picked out X on the basis of the uniform and the bag and nothing more.  In addition, X’s future was in jeopardy as she had a place at college to study A Levels but would lose that if she could not sit her GCSE’s, and  I was very concerned about X’s wellbeing even after one night in a cell.

X was released on bail, with the next court date set for a time that did not interfere with the rest of her GCSE exams, and was released from the court in sufficient time to get to school and sit her exam.

As X is a youth, she was entitled to legal aid for my handling of her case.  My legal aid fee for that morning was £52.50 (including my £9 travel).  I do not profess that I am worth more than £52.50, nor do I think I did anything more than any of my criminal legal aid colleagues would have done, but I do think that to be good value and not a waste of tax payer’s money, ensuring that X was able to get to her GCSE exam and preventing a young life being damaged (possibly beyond repair) both educationally and emotionally.

Hence, when the Ministry of Justice makes noises about ‘Fat Cat’ lawyers and the highest legal aid bill in the World, it is interesting to note that they cannot back it up with examples, yet myself and my criminal legal aid colleagues can provide thousands of examples such as these….the real people that the cuts will affect.   Ask yourself, if it was your 16 year old in the cells, would you want them to be given a representative who is merely competent and capable, or alternative  a dedicated, experienced criminal lawyer who cares….

X’s dad sent me a text…’can you send me the link to the petition….can’t put a value on your service…priceless 🙂 ”  So here is the link… if you want to be able to choose your lawyer, and don’t want the expertise to be replaced with a representative from a large corporation who is classed as ‘competent and capable’  please sign this epetition and pass it to others… Save UK Justice epetition

It has been questioned why we are fighting so hard to get to the 100,000 signatures on this epetition.  The Ministry of Justice intends to implement these cuts via secondary legislation, which means it does not have to be voted on in either the House of Commons or House of Lords.  Hence the only way we can get a proper debate in Parliament on these proposed cuts is to get to 100,000 signatures.  Please don’t let the Government bypass democracy and introduce these cuts without a vote.

Finally, in typical lawyer disclaimer style…some of the case details have been changed to further protect the identify of X.

If you have read this far…thank you for taking the time to read my ramblings!

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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

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