Believe the Fat Cat Lawyer spin if you want, but this is the alternative version of why Criminal lawyers are fighting for Legal Aid
Yesterday I threatened to handcuff myself to a bench in the Magistrates Court until my case was dealt with. Its the second time in the last few months that I have done so. It sounds dramatic, but drastic times call for drastic measures. I actually meant it, and I assume on both occasions I have given the impression that I meant it as the court then found a way to deal with my case!
The courts, Crown Prosecution Service, Police, Probation and defence are all at breaking point, but that does not justify the attitude that I am seeing all too much these days. The ‘well that’s the way it is’ attitude when I complain about the fact that a client who is a youth has been in custody for 5 months and the CPS still haven’t prepared the charges, or a client with mental health issues (who the court insisted entered a plea on the first occasion) has had his trial adjourned three times, or a young mother (at risk of losing her children, job and home if she goes to prison) has attended court five times waiting for papers on her case only to find that the police recommended that the case be discontinued four months ago.
Last night someone described me as a ‘bully lawyer’, that may be so, but I also like to think that I care. I appreciate the “well that’s just the way it is” damage that is done to my clients and their families with the constant delays. I appreciate how it feels to be treated by the criminal justice system as though you don’t exist, whether you are a defendant, witness or victim.
When the legal aid cuts were first mooted, I wrote a piece about the fact I felt very uncomfortable with striking as I did not want to leave a client facing court without representation. However, I have changed my mind. The damage I imagined would be done by the Ministry of Justice legal aid cuts is actually much worse. The latest announcement of another 8.75% cuts to legal aid rates, giving firms only 3 weeks notice of the cuts, will mean that if the criminal legal profession does not act now, there will be no criminal legal profession in 4 years time, and then every defendant who cannot afford a private lawyer will be facing court without representation.
Obviously the Government spin goes into overdrive as soon as any legal aid cuts are mentioned. The latest cuts announcement was accompanied by media reports about hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers money being spent on trials, with the articles cleverly worded to make it seem as though that was all defence fees, when in fact it was the whole trial cost, so included the Prosecution costs, jury costs, court costs and defence fees. But that wouldn’t make such a good defence lawyer bashing headline so why ruin a good story with the truth.
If I had £1 for every time someone has said to me recently “well you will just have to find another type of law to practice” I could handsomely supplement the legal aid cuts. But the reality is that I don’t want to do anything else, and if all criminal lawyers take that advice, there will be no justice. It’s not just about justice for the defendant. What about the victims and witnesses who, if there are no criminal lawyers, will be questioned in court by the person that have accused of committing a crime. What about the jury who will have the very unenviable task of having to determine a person’s guilt or innocence based on the case run by the defendant, with all the confusions and emotions of the defendant thrown into the mix. What about the defendant with mental health problems or youth who are expected to be able to understand the case papers and chase the Crown Prosecution Service for the missing papers. Who is going to raise the valid legal arguments which may make or break a case?
The Ministry of Justice will have you believe that the wealthy defendants will still be represented by good lawyers as they will pay privately, and that all others can be picked up by the pro bono system. This is utter nonsense and just shows how out of touch the Ministry of Justice is with the current criminal justice system. All of the points I have raised above still apply.
*Does that mean that a victim of a violent assault and robbery has to hope the person charged with attacking them is wealthy as that way a lawyer will cross examine them in court. Perhaps we need to have stickers made for our clothing, ‘Please only assault and rob me if you are wealthy’!
*Jurors will have to hope that their defendant can afford a lawyer as that way they will only have to take the obligatory 2 weeks off of work for jury service, but if they are unlucky enough to get an indigent defendant case, they may be looking at four weeks off of work due to the extra time it takes for an unrepresented defendant to deliver his or her case.
*The recently qualified lawyer who works in Mergers and Acquisitions, who works 60 hours a week, and whose employer doesn’t allow them to turn their work phone off, and who has been given the case of a person with mental health difficulties as part of the pro bono package isn’t going to sit in an interview room in Hull with the client for hours trying to get instructions, while at the same time trying to stop them from self harming while sitting at the table. “Oh sorry love, I know you are going to try and cut yourself with that pen as soon as I leave the room, but I really need to take this call from Hong Kong.”
Yes, as defence lawyers we have a bad rep, we are known as Fat Cats, we often don’t help ourselves by appearing in public wearing wigs and gowns – thinking we are making ourselves identifiable, but in reality coming across as totally detached from normal life. But most of the lawyers I deal with day after day are not like that. I spend my time with the most vulnerable, disadvantaged, confused, and scared. I don’t walk around with designer handbags and spend my time at garden parties, but I do..
*answer my phone at 3am to a scared client and receive no money for it;
*work all night to try and ensure that the legal argument the judge has demanded is in front of him at 9am despite the fact I won’t get paid for that work as it is classed as part of case preparation;
*regularly interrupt a family dinner to take a call from a junior colleague in the police station asking advice about a client they are representing. That is a call I don’t get paid for;
*travel 10 hours round trip to visit a client in prison on remand. I get a low fixed fee for the prison visit so long as I can prove it was ‘essential’ (and the Legal Aid Authority puts a lot of hard work into trying to say that I made a 10 hour trip to sit in a tiny room with a client for the fun of it). But I don’t get paid for the 6 hours travel time or the 1 hour waiting to get into the prison. If the prison is out in The Sticks I have to get a taxi from the station, usually at a vastly inflated rate as the taxi firms know there is no other way to get to the prison, and I then have to wait months for my travel expenses (in excess of £100 per trip) to be paid back to me.
*get up at 4:30 and travel half way across the country to get to an obscure court for 9am, only to be told that the case is being adjourned because witnesses have not been warned for the trial. For that wasted day I will receive my travel expenses only;
*sit in a small room with some thoroughly unpleasant clients persuading them that they should plead guilty so that the young victim does not have to face the fear of coming to court;
*have to view nasty photos and watch hours of footage of crimes and witness accounts which would most definitely come with a warning if they were in a fictional film. I can’t talk about this to this anyone, and get no offer of help from the Ministry of Justice to deal with this;
*occasionally find I am on the receiving end of verbal abuse by victims and their families due to the fact I am representing a certain client. I never make a complaint about this, I just get on with the job;
*have to protect my family from repercussions from the media and public for some of the clients I represent. I never make a complaint about this, I just get on with the job.
I’m not special, I’m just a criminal lawyer, trying to keep this profession alive, to encourage the junior lawyers to stay in the criminal system. It is about justice, but with that does flow the fact that even criminal lawyers have to make enough to pay their rent, and if the Government’s current reductions mean that those lawyers won’t be able to pay their rent they will go elsewhere and find work that does pay their rent, which brings me back to the justice issue again..
Yesterday I sent out a tweet encouraging lawyers who receive letters from MPs asking for pro bono assistance for their constituents to refuse the work and remind the MPs of the reason for the increase in constituents having to approach their MPs for assistance. It seems I hit a nerve as I became a ‘Top Tweeter’ for the day…I’m sure the invite to the award ceremony and the plaque (or should I say plague) will follow in due course!
There has recently been media suggestion that MPs offices are at breaking point with the increase of constituents asking for legal assistance. Those of us who have worked in social justice for many years are aware of the cuts which have been made to legal funding over the past 10 years, but that since the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 came into force the system has been at breaking point. Families facing eviction from their homes, workers being paid less than the minimum wage and who wish to bring a claim in the employment tribunal, mothers and fathers fighting for access to their children, are just a few examples of those who are now having to try and negotiate the complex court systems themselves or try and find a law centre where the doors are still open.
My recent experience of cases which I have undertaken pro bono, and which previously had MP involvement is that the claimant has suffered at the hands of an unqualified inexperienced MP or their assistant, such as a constituent providing a copy of the legal advice they had received pro bono to their MP, only to find that the MP sent a letter to the organisation the constituent wished to bring a claim against, and included the legally privileged advice! Other examples are poor advice on the deadlines for submitting a claim so that by the time the constituent submitted the claim form, their claim was out of time, or advice to claim against the wrong person resulting in high wasted costs to the constituent. My general experience of dealing with the MP’s offices are that they are rude, demanding, and have no appreciation for the fact that I also have other clients and that the time I use to undertake pro bono work is actually precious as I try to use it to help as many people as possible, and not to repeatedly send responses to the MP to massage his or her ego.
Hence, I made the decision a while ago that I would not undertake pro bono work for anyone referred from an MP’s office and instead I send back this standard letter. I am happy for anyone reading this to copy this letter and use it.
I acknowledge receipt of your unsolicited letter requesting pro bono assistance for a member of your constituency.
Unfortunately, as I am sure you are aware, both the criminal justice system and the social justice system has suffered scathing legal aid cuts, and in my experience both are at breaking point and only being held together by the goodwill of lawyers and legal caseworkers who undertake pro bono work.
It is a sad reflection on both the Government and the Shadow Government that the invaluable Law Centres and legal centres have seen their funding cut to such a level that, for those which have not been forced to close, they are now unable to assist anywhere near the number of clients who are approaching them for help.
I undertake a very high amount of pro bono work, but have made the decision to support the law centres/advice clinics, Bar Pro Bono Unit, FRU and other charities I endorse, as I consider these to be the most needy, and without the back office support that the privilege of being a Member of Parliament brings.
Hence, I will not be able to assist your constituent in a pro bono capacity. Can I suggest that to best serve your constituents with their legal queries, you make efforts to try and rectify some of the damage that has been done to the social justice system over the past 4 years, afterall it is the power that as a Member of Parliament, you hold in your hands, and a power that us lawyers who are at the coalface cannot wield.
Yours sincerely ”