Legal Aid: Trip Advisor Review

Like any good barrister, I have read both sides of the debate over recent months on whether or not the Bar should take direct action or whether we should accept the new AGFS. I do not propose for one moment that I hold any particular knowledge or skill-set that makes me better placed than others to offer my opinion. But often, and in any area of life, the views of others can sometimes offer guidance or promote debate. Consider my views therefore the general ramblings of a frequent traveller constituting an entry on Trip Advisor. If the hotel were to be “Chateau Legal Aid”, the entry would read: “Requires modernisation, new owners and a desperate reality check; not fit for purpose”.

I live and breathe for Legal Aid cases and the classic jury trial. I strongly believe that Legal Aid clients deserve the same level of representation as the private client. Herein lies the issue and indeed the main catalyst for my taking issue with the proposed changes and my personal support (desire) for direct action.

It is crucial that solicitors and the Bar should be properly remunerated for Legal Aid cases so that all cases can be prepared fully and the system is not forced to survive on goodwill alone.

It was once said that the Legal System was like the Ritz, open to all. We are entering a climate where the alternative to the Ritz is a hostel without running water: welcome to Chateau Legal Aid. Breakfast not included.

When I was instructed by a Government Department in a recent case, they paid me by the hour, for every hour worked, at a rate of £60. I therefore ask why they believe it is acceptable when the PUBLIC are the client and not THEM, to pay a fixed fee which often works out less than the current living wage for Juniors?

There is not simply the emergence of a two-tier justice system between rich and poor; there is a two tier justice system between the Government and the public. Further, if we are all in this together why have MPs not taken a pay cut? Apparently, we are all in this together, but whilst the Government see the need for cuts, they continue residing at a 5 star hotel whilst forcing everyone else to find a spot at the local  campsite. My opposers would say that is a cheap dig. Maybe it is, but every barrister likes a crowd-pleaser now and again.

In 2018, I now ask, as I did in 2015, “How much should a criminal solicitor and/or a barrister earn?”. I still do not know the answer to that question in true monetary terms save to say that it should be a wage that reflects the training (Degree and Postgraduate level), the experience (Vocational training and thereafter a sometimes steep but always ongoing learning curve), the risks (30 years for murder, or an acquittal) and the skill displayed on a daily basis. I do not understand why a criminal pupil earns less than a waitress at the Houses of Parliament (vacancies advertised for over £20,000 a year, in case any pupils want to jump ship -and yes, that’s tax payer’s money) 

What is needed is a salary that attracts talent and rewards hard work. I know its tax payers’ money but so is the money used to pay Doctors and those that work for the BBC (not to mention a chef for the House of Commons, bar tender, librarian….) The reference to salary is important; if you remunerate properly those in the profession then the job shall be done properly.

We are brandished by the media as the second-hand car salesman of the legal system; they  pedal the stereotype wanted by the Government, and unfortunately the public lap it up. I can assure the public that when their son is wrongly charged with rape, they do you want a second hand car salesman, but they shall want the best in the business. Unfortunately, the best are leaving the business. If you pay peanuts you shall get monkeys. Admittedly, it is alleged that a collection of monkey’s might be able to reproduce the work of Shakespeare, but you will die in prison waiting for them to type your closing speech.   

The classic after dinner question “How do you defend the guilty?” is asked more often than the equally irritating question to the coupled-up but yet unmarried, “So, when are you going to propose?”. I defend a human being professionally, without spin or lie, and let the Jury decide. There is no shame in that. Psychologically the tougher case to defend, in my view, is not the defendant you believe might be guilty but the defendant who you are convinced is wholly innocent.

The Government have attempted to offer scraps to the Junior Bar in their AGFS proposal.The Government will now pay for a barrister to appear for a second day of trial and pay for mention hearings. Forgive me if I don’t immediate applaud the Government for simply righting an offensive wrong.  In the short term, that does appear pleasing. However, its a cheap ploy to divide the profession. The Juniors must remember (a) there will no longer be a “decent” junior brief fee on a long running case. You will never secure a house deposit for a case. You will never clear your student loan and (b) the Leading Juniors will be coming for your work: there will be no money in the  long case; we are coming for your ABHs and GBHs.

I naturally have much to lose under this scheme and therefore I am bias; I am fortunate enough to have regular 10,000 page case. I will be hit hard. But I make this plea on behalf of all the Bar. You need to protect the Juniors and give them career profession. You need to protect the profession. You need to ensure that the public are protected.

From the 1st April 2018 it appears inevitable that I shall undertake only private work and no longer accept work which is publicly funded (I do not consider that there is proper remuneration for such cases). I can only apologise; I do not want to perpetuate the two-tier justice system. But do not blame me; blame your MP that is not lobbing and has allowed this situation to develop.

We are advocates. We have voiced our concerns. We have projected the devastation of the Government’s plan with reason and calm.

Now its time to fight fearlessly for ourselves. Go hard or go home.

 

1 Independent of levels of remuneration, do you favour the structure of the new AGFS scheme over the current scheme?

NO

2 Is further significant investment needed in the AGFS to sustain a healthy and diverse independent criminal Bar? 

YES

3 Are you prepared to participate in an escalating series of actions (e.g. days of action, work to rule, no returns) to restore proper levels of investment in the Criminal Justice System, including investment in the AGFS?

YES

These views are my own; they do not represent the view of any committee or association I am privileged enough to serve or my Chambers.

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