Chris Grayling the Minister of Justice announced earlier this year his intention to reform the way in which Criminal Legal Aid is delivered. He wants to reduce the number of firms providing criminal legal aid from 1600 to 400. He expects firms applying for one of the new contracts to apply at least a 17.5% discount to the fees currently paid enabling the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to save £220 million from the Criminal Legal Aid budget.
Why should you care about Criminal Legal Aid Lawyers? Mr Grayling is happy to have a conversation with you about Lawyers losing money because he knows the public will not object to greedy lawyers’ fees getting cut. Indeed following a recent demonstration outside the MoJ building an article appeared in the Daily Mail setting out the earnings of the top three QC’s and Criminal Legal Aid firms. The truth of course is that only a very few at the top of the Bar earn six figures with many thousands of junior Barristers struggling to make ends meet. As regards the top earning Criminal Defence Firms simply quoting the annual turnover is meaningless without taking into account the number of cases they do and the overheads they incur.
The Criminal Legal Aid budget is an easy target and has suffered cuts over the past decade long before anyone was talking about austerity measures. Much of the work is provided by small and medium businesses that are efficient and lean. The Ministry of Justice acknowledge that the service provided is of a good quality in fact in their consultation document they state that the quality is too high and that they are really only require an acceptable level of service.
The question we should ask is not what affect these reforms will have on Lawyers but instead how will the public suffer? Quality is at the heart of the debate surrounding these reforms. Under the proposed system, if you are funded by legal aid, you will not have the choice of solicitor. There will be fewer lawyers dealing with more cases which will mean less time per case and less time with clients. Less time will mean clients will get swept along in a machine where guilty pleas are profitable and not guilty pleas and complex cases are loss making. People will simply not be heard and injustice will follow.
Whether it is causing death by careless driving, being accused of sending an offensive message, being drunk and disorderly, criminal damage or causing a public order offence anyone of us being honest looking at our lives has or could have come close to committing a criminal offence. We are all also vulnerable to false accusations.
A caution or conviction can be a real disadvantage in terms of obtaining employment. A period in custody on remand or serving a sentence can be a life changing experience and result in loss of accommodation, employment and relationships as well impacting on your emotional and physical wellbeing.
But persons accused of offences are only one half of the story. The experience of Victims is also tied up with these reforms. Advocates in our Magistrates and Crown courts are trained to a high standard which requires them to adopt special strategies when dealing with vulnerable and young witnesses. There is a fear that many people who currently possess these specialist skills will walk away from Criminal Defence work leaving less experienced advocates to conduct cases beyond their ability. This potentially will roll back years of reform which has attempted to reduce the impact of a Trial on a victim so that it no longer feels like an extension of the abuse or suffering that they have already experienced?
These reforms will also impact on the diversity of our profession. There is currently a good deal of diversity among professionals practicing Criminal Law albeit that has yet to be properly reflected in the judiciary. These reforms will adversely impact Black and Minority Ethnic practices which tend to be small and specialist. Many of the small and medium business who currently hold legal aid contracts have a good level of representation of female partners and business owners. The great fear among practitioners is that large corporations will apply for contracts which will undermine the progress that has been made by the profession. Furthermore the reforms to legal aid will affect the Bar. It is likely that the bar will become an increasingly unattractive option for graduates with lower earnings and fewer opportunities the risks of paying for Bar School will be too great for many. All these factors will ensure that fight to have greater diversity in our Judiciary will be set back decades as a consequence of these reforms.
You can follow the debate in the Law Society Gazette at http://www.lawgazette.co.uk/ or on twitter by following @notopct and @criminalbar.
Criminal Defence Solicitor.