On Monday 6th January the Criminal Bar staged a mass walk-out. Up and down the country barristers, solicitors and members of the public campaigned outside Magistrates’ Courts and Crown Courts against the proposed legal aid cuts. Cuts that will cripple the system. Cuts that will mean many innocent people will go unrepresented, or worse still will be represented by inexperienced, poorly prepared advocates. Cuts that will mean many lawyers are forced into other jobs in order to pay the bills.
I campaigned outside the City of Westminster Magistrates’ Court. I did so not because of how these cuts will affect me personally, but because of how they will affect us all.
Picture: The Guardian
I’m not a criminal, so I won’t be affected, right?
The police don’t always get it right. They don’t always arrest the person guilty of the crime. Sometimes innocent people get dragged into the system. What if that person is you? You’re sat in a cold damp cell waiting for your top notch solicitor to swoop in and get you out of there. What if she never comes? Take away legal aid and those innocent people have to pay for a barrister or solicitor to represent them at Court. Of course they could choose to self-represent, but that’s a bit like attempting surgery on yourself having watched a couple of episodes of Doctors. Besides, what if you say the wrong thing in interview and the police twist your words to make it look like you’re guilty? Can you get yourself out of that muddle? No. But your solicitor probably can.
Even if they do arrest the right person, what if that right person is you? You think it will never happen but can you honestly say you have never broken the law? Never driven a fraction over the speed limit? Never had one too many beers and ended up causing a bit of a scene in the local pub? Never defended yourself a little too forcefully and ended up giving someone a black eye? Never smoked a joint? Never stolen a packet of sweets?
The cuts mean that fewer and fewer individuals will be eligible for legal aid. Those who earn over £36,000, or who have a partner who does, will not be eligible. They will either have to represent themselves or pay for a barrister or solicitor to do so. This could cost them a small fortune. I don’t charge excessive private fees, but I’ve got to pay my bills just as you do, and quite simply legal aid fees don’t allow me to do that.
I’m on benefits, so I’ll get a top brief for free, right?
You’ll be represented, but don’t count on a “top brief”. You’ve heard of the phrase “pay peanuts get monkeys”? Your advocate will have forced the decent, honest, hard-working solicitors and barristers out of the profession because they can no longer afford to do the job. Of course he’ll assure you he has your best interest at heart in advising you to plead guilty. But how do you know he’s not advising this for financial gain? He’ll get the same fee whether you plead guilty or not. And a trial is so much hard work that could so easily be avoided. Who cares if you’re innocent? He certainly doesn’t. He’s got hundreds of clients to represent, why should he spend any more time on your case than absolutely necessary?
So if I have to pay for a barrister but am acquitted, the state pays me my costs, right?
Even if you’re found “not guilty” after trial, you can only reclaim costs at legal aid rates. Which are pitiful.
Pitiful? Show us the money!
Mr Grayling would have you believe that we’re all earning vast sums of money as Mr Grayling would have you believe. Indeed the vast majority of junior criminal barristers earn less than the national average wage in the UK. The majority start their career as a pupil barrister earning just £12,000 gross. That will rise, but not to the astronomical figures Mr Grayling would have you believe. Ten years ago I was I had a weekend job waitressing in a local restaurant. I earned more then, on an hourly basis, that I do now. Now, I am a fully-qualified practicing criminal barrister, representing individuals at all levels of the Criminal Justice system from the Magistrates’ Court through to the Court of Appeal. Then I was a 17-year-old school girl.
At five years call and a mere year post-pupillage, I’m a very junior member of the Bar. The vast majority of my work is legally aided. I only defend. The work I do is fixed-fee. In the Magistrates’ Court I’ll get paid £50 to represent an individual charged with a criminal offence in their first Court appearance. In order to properly represent that individual I will need to read the case papers, analyse the evidence, advise fully in conference, fill in legal aid forms and that’s all before we even get in front of the Magistrates/ District Judge. In Court I will need to tell the tribunal the issues upon which the matter is contested (if indeed it is contested) and possibly apply for bail. If the matter is not contested, and my client chooses to plead guilty, I will mitigate. If, following mitigation, the bench decide to adjourn the case for a fast delivery Pre-Sentence Report, I may be asked to wait for several hours in order for my client to meet with probation. And so I will wait. It’s not uncommon for this entire process, including preparation time and court-time, to take an entire working day, plus preparation time the previous evening. Yet still my “fee” remains £50. Much of that £50 is swallowed up by travel costs, chambers rent, clerks fees and tax.
Of course not all of my days are spent in the Magistrates’ Court. Baby-steps are taken into the Crown Court, where a year or so ago I started off covering pre-trial hearings for colleagues in chambers. The odd sentence here and there. For one particular pre-trial hearing, a Plea and Case Management Hearing, I would get paid £47.50. For a sentence I may receive around £100. However, if I am the Instructed Advocate in the Crown Court case, and I am unable to attend one of these pre-trial hearings, I will have to pay another advocate to go. Their “fee” will then come out of the fixed fee I get for the entire case. And so technically, I’m at a loss by not going to Court. Of course, some days I’m still at a loss by actually going to Court – my travel costs frequently come to more than £50 as I work all over the country. Again, it’s all fixed-fee, regardless of the number of hours I spend preparing the case, in conference with the client, and physically on my feet in Court. I could choose not to prepare at all, in which case the time spent would be considerably less. But then I wouldn’t expect to get much repeat business, and I wouldn’t expect to have a very high success rate, and, what is more it could well lead to innocent people being convicted! This is why, instead, I spend my evenings and weekends working, for little or no remuneration.
The fear is that if Grayling really does slash the legal aid budget, and with it slash barrister’s fees, the vast majority will be forced to leave the profession and seek properly paid employment (waitressing is always an option!) But then who will defend those charged with criminal offences? Who will prosecute the murders and rapists? Someone who is willing to work for next to nothing. Someone who will not put in the hours or the effort that the job demands. Someone who will pressurise their client to plead guilty, because that someone gets paid the same for a guilty plea as for a week-long trial, never mind that the client is innocent. Miscarriages of justice will be a frighteningly common occurrence and the justice system as we know it will grind to a halt.
That’s why I was protesting outside City of Westminster Magistrates’ Court. Because these cuts will affect YOU!