On Saturday the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition was in our local city of Lincoln, campaigning for his party in the local elections.
We thought it would be a pity for the occasion to go unmarked. One local lawyer managed to ask Mr Miliband a question about what his views on the consultation paper were . The response?
“Any cuts under Labour would not affect clients’ access to justice.”
So, no suggestion of investment or undertaking not to cut. And the slightly strange idea that one can cut but not affect access to justice. If Mr Miliband knows the answer to that particular quandary we would appreciate him passing the information on to the Ministry of Justice, who certainly don’t have a clue about how to avoid it, given that they’re busy in almost every sphere placing padlocks on the doors leading to the hallowed Halls of Justice.
What is more worrying is that Mr Miliband didn’t seem to know what the question was asking about. He could have said, “We’re aware of it and are looking at other ways to save money.” Or he could have said, “We agree that cuts need to be made.” Or better, he could have said, “We disagree with these proposals and will oppose them.”
Instead, he gave a general answer which was not thought through and did not address the issue. That may mean that he simply does not care. It may mean that his policy staff have not briefed him. Perhaps his front bench justice team have not decided how to respond.
There is one certainty here. It is that these important plans, endangering the entire justice system and risking devastation for both professions and thousands of businesses, are not on the radar. If they’re not on the radar they will not be opposed. They will not be debated. They will not be questioned and they will not be scrutinised.
If changes like these can go through without even a second glance from the Opposition that is truly horrifying.
We hope that all those who care about justice will carry on trying to engage with their representatives, respond to the “consultation”, attend an MOJ event, and generally keep shouting about what a disaster all this will be. We need to make this an issue which is noticed.
In the meantime, we hope that the letter we had handed to Mr Miliband’s senior policy staff on behalf of all criminal lawyers in Lincolnshire is read and considered carefully. It won’t take long to read, but if these changes go through it will take a lifetime to undo the damage.
So Mr Miliband, here’s the letter again in case it’s been mislaid. A response to our tweets about whether you’ve read it yet would be appreciated. Radio silence so far.
Dear Mr Miliband,
For many years the criminal justice system has been deprecated by those both in Government and in Opposition. The dedicated hardworking professionals serving it have been derided as fat-cats and the decisions of the courts dismissed or criticized. Those in power, the press, and the public have forgotten the value of the rule of law and the benefit brought to a democracy by a high quality court system.
The culmination of this is the release by the Coalition of a green paper entitled “Transforming Legal Aid”. Its proposals represent the climax of a campaign to reduce access to justice and erode the principle of equality before the law.
In the sphere of criminal law the paper proposes price competitive tendering and savage fee cuts across the board. The number of criminal law providers will be slashed from 1,600 to a maximum of 400, but possibly as few as 38 may remain. Publicly-funded criminal litigation will in the future be provided by a small number of providers who bid the lowest price for their services.
In the future there will be no client choice. The market which presently regulates our services by reference to the quality of what we provide will no longer exist. Instead the limited providers will be allocated clients without reference to the nature of the case or the suitability of the provider. The quality of the service is irrelevant and the commercial imperative will be to provide the cheapest possible service. The market share of each provider will be fixed such that the nature of the work done by that contractor will have no impact on whether they succeed or fail. Only bargain basement prices will count.
In a system run in this way justice will suffer. Trials will not be prepared properly as the cut-price service on offer will allow for only the bare minimum of preparation. With every penny being strictly monitored papers will not be read carefully, witnesses will not be seen, accounts will not be investigated and issues will not be identified. The work of the courts will be harder, trials longer, and justice will be inconvenienced by delays, adjournments, mistrials and appeals arising from poor work.
Victims will suffer too. The agony of the trial will be prolonged or repeated. Witnesses will suffer for the same reasons. Defendants, some of whom it ought to be remembered have been wrongly accused and may be innocent, will also be harmed. Some will be wrongly convicted; others will plead guilty to things they have not done because of pressure put on them by a lawyer who can only make the business model work by increasing the number of guilty pleas.
The value of chosen lawyers working in a market regulated by quality rather than price alone cannot be overestimated. We know our clients and our communities. We can give unpalatable advice to implacable individuals in a way untrusted people cannot. We identify the issues in a case from years of collective experience. We help the prosecution to weed out the hopeless cases and are trusted by the courts to make sensible submissions.
Under the new system those links and advantages will be broken and lost forever. With no link between clients and firms trust will be eroded and justice impeded.
The criminal bar is not safe. The new providers will only be able to make a profit by taking all their advocacy work in-house. This will destroy the junior bar and with it the bar’s future. Before long the criminal bar will be a shadow of its former self. Who, then, will make up the crème de la crème of the criminal judiciary? Who will prosecute and defend the most delicate of sex or most violent of homicide cases?
The human cost should not be forgotten. With the loss of criminal work around 1,500 firms of solicitors will become insolvent. They exist on a mixed diet and with a significant proportion of their income removed the entirety of those businesses will be affected, not just crime. Firms will close with the loss to those communities of all those employment opportunities and legal advice services. Small and medium sized towns will be without a local solicitor and their office will stand empty. Thousands of people will be made redundant and become a burden on the state. Those local businesses which had been built up over years will be destroyed at a stroke.
We understand the austerity drive. We see the suffering in our communities and we suffer too. Very few legal aid lawyers are fat cats. Most work incredibly hard for little reward but the value of job satisfaction. However, the financial justification for this destructive policy is not there. The cuts instituted thus far have already saved all bar £52m of the Government’s target. That sum could easily be saved elsewhere in the system if only someone would ask where.
It is proposed that there be no debate on this issue on the floor of the House of Commons. We are told that there is a cross-party consensus for these changes.
We hope you may reconsider that position. The country is presently being led blindfolded into the loss of the most well-respected justice system in the world. Hard-won traditional rights and liberties will be destroyed and honourable historic professions decimated. Once that road has been taken it will not be possible to retrace our steps.
If Labour believes in justice and the rule of law, it will object to these sweeping changes being proposed without so much as a vote in the House.
Help us to Save UK Justice.