This hasn’t been a good year for sleep. When the Government’s original consultation came out I seemed to lose the ability to do it properly. I’ve spent hours lying awake at night reflecting on things. It took about four months for me to get back to something approaching normal.
Recently I’d started to improve, or so I thought, but here I am awake again. There could be many things keeping me awake at night (and I should be thankful that my children generally sleep through, unlike those of some friends of ours), but right now, the position of our campaign is what is occupying my mind, or at least what passes for my mind at this time of the morning.
What position is that? It is one in which, as the Chair of the Criminal Bar Association said last night, we are having to fight our way back now from a sitting start because of the defeatist attitude of the Law Society. Nigel Lithman QC said that he was “shocked, stunned and disappointed at the very least” by the actions of the Law Society and the stance taken by Des Hudson, its Chief Executive. Mr Hudson had, he said, blamed everyone but himself. Mr Lithman’s comments were met with prolonged applause from the audience at the Justice Closing Down Sale meeting.
The past Chair of the CBA, Michael Turner QC, had some things to say too. He pointed out that at a meeting of the representative bodies in August a certain stance had been agreed, but the next meeting of those bodies was cancelled by the Law Society, who, it turned out, had already entered into secret talks with the Ministry of Justice and conceded the structural changes desired by the Ministry even though the vast majority of the Society’s members would not be in favour of that course. His question was (in gist) what assurance would the Society give that no further concession would be given without consultation?
Des Hudson, who unlike his members last year received a 6.8% pay rise, taking his remuneration package to over £407,000 (or the gross income before expenses of ten criminal barristers; about 16 criminal solicitors), was unapologetic. He said that decisions had been taken in accordance with the Constitution of the Society and future decisions would be taken in the same manner.
I find this astonishing. Mr Hudson conceded at one stage in the evening that the Society does not regard it as possible to conduct criminal litigation properly on the rates proposed by the Government, and he recognises that the changes proposed will force the vast number of criminal solicitors out of business. Yet, instead of fighting tooth and nail for his members, Mr Hudson regards the changes as inevitable. As the largest of the representative bodies, the Society should be leading the way. It ought to be incandescent that the Government proposes changes which, he accepts, will lead to an inability to provide proper representation. Yet instead Mr Hudson appears to feel no shame at all for abandoning both the public and his constituents. There was not a word of regret or a hint of apology. Faced with clear anger from the audience (shouts of “shame!”) Mr Hudson was unwavering in his assertion that the Government would simply do it because it can; that the politicians are not interested; and that the Government only needs enough lawyers to do the work – it does not need all of us. He said that the Big Firms Group had submitted a proposal to the Ministry of Justice which gave them everything they wanted, but he refused to condemn that action (which was to the detriment of all the rest of us, and society at large). Mr Hudson has clearly not learned a single thing from this campaign.
This is, of course, what I feared all along. When Mr Hudson says there have been cuts from Government for twenty years, he is right. But when he says that is an example of how they can get their own way and therefore there is little point in active resistance, he is utterly wrong. Rather, it is an example of where the approach of the Law Society gets us: precisely nowhere. The Society ought to be ashamed at how totally it has failed its members in that time.
Several speakers last night pointed out that we had reasoned with the Ministry of Justice, and presented cogent arguments backed with evidence. And that the MOJ had failed to listen to reason and ignored the evidence. I’m sorry to say that the Law Society is just as bad. I, and others, urged them to take a different course at the start of this campaign (see here) but from start to finish they have maintained a steady course, direction locked on the MOJ iceberg. They might as well be standing on the bridge of the Titanic shouting “We’re all going to die!”.
What they fail to appreciate is that their position is entirely self-fulfilling. If the Government knows that the Law Society is telling its members that the changes will be imposed and it is not possible to defeat the Government, that is solace for the Lord Chancellor and does the work of twisting the knife for him. In my everyday practice in the criminal courts it is akin to me purporting to represent my client while at the same time telling the prosecutor that we plan to plead guilty: why would the Crown reconsider the weak aspects of its case if the defendant will plead anyway? There is only one outcome to that concession. A guilty plea regardless of the evidence, law or merit of the case. It is the same here; the concession deprives the arguments of their force.
Equally, all the Law Society’s concessions about the need to reduce the deficit and reduce spending are misguided and wrong. The cuts are political. They are not necessary. The Government chooses where to spend our money and it does so on the basis of its own political priorities and partisan interests. The cost of the married couples tax break, for example, dwarfs the size of the legal aid cuts, but will only benefit a chosen proportion of the population, and frankly won’t benefit them that much.
It is clear now that no amount of argument, persuasion, ire, handwringing, evidence or public humiliation will cause Mr Hudson and his Society to change their view. He appears to have no regret at all for his actions. He seems to think that history will forgive him for giving in. Perhaps he ought to ask Neville Chamberlain how that one worked out.
My position is what it has always been. We provide a hugely valuable service which is often not recognised as such by the public, at least until they need us, but which should be recognised by the Government. The responsibility of the Government is to provide a justice system we can be proud of, and which is immune to and aloof from tabloid-headline hate-politics.
We provide that service. The system works because of us. It works largely based on our goodwill. There is no other job or profession which does so much for free, out of a sense of duty and professional obligation. There is no other sector which has been cut so extensively for so long. Firefighters and teachers are striking over lack of improvement or changes to things like pensions – things which lawyers can only dream of. We had the cuts even in the good times.
We all know what will happen if we withdraw our goodwill. If we say we are not to be treated like this. If we will not work for free. If I, and others, say that we will not stay up until the early hours doing the work required to keep the court moving the next day. The system will grind to a halt almost immediately. Without us, there is no system. If we don’t do the work, it won’t get done.
It is only that which will force the Government to come to the negotiating table. If the Law Society can be seen not to be carrying its members with it the concessions it has made will cease to have any force and it will lose the ability to act as a “representative” body. Instead, we can all trust the Criminal Bar Association, with the CLSA and LCCSA, to properly and impartially represent their members and the wider interests of society.
I suppose it’s going to be some time before I go back to sleeping properly and soundly at night. I can only hope that Messrs Hudson and Grayling, in bed with one another, are not sleeping soundly either.
Those who follow my posts on Twitter or Facebook will have seen that I, with many other people, am hugely disappointed with the actions of the Law Society this week. In this post I will try to set out why, and where we should go from here.
Where we were
The last seven days have been truly momentous. Just over a week ago the Backbench debate was held on the floor of the House of Commons. It was a debate that Her Majesty’s Government had not wanted to take place. However, democracy prevailed and a number of MPs from all parties used the time allocated to backbenchers to secure proper debate of the proposals for legal aid.
The striking thing about that debate was the number of MPs from all parties who spoke powerfully and eloquently in favour of the need for access to justice, and in total opposition to many aspects of the Transforming Legal Aid proposals. One significant thing to come out of the debate was the offer of an Opposition Day for there to be a more comprehensive debate with a division of the House.
Bearing in mind that by that stage the political reality was that the Labour Party was fully against the Government plans, the Liberal Democrats had also come out against it at a very senior level (Nick Clegg expressed doubts, the Deputy Leader opposed them vigorously, and so did the Party’s President), and many Conservative MPs were greatly concerned, there must have been very significant pressure on the MOJ for there to be a rethink. The appearance was that if there was a vote in the House, the Government would have faced a split in the Coalition, rebellion from several of its own backbenchers, and it would in all probability have been defeated.
Then on Friday, the #saveUKjustice e-petition passed the symbolic 100,000 signature mark. Whilst technically this merely means that there can be further pressure on the Backbench Business Committee to hold another debate, it is still a hugely important milestone. I doubt that the Government thought that lawyers would be able to gather enough support from the public to reach that level.
Added to all that is the fact that in the preceding weeks there had been hundreds of blog articles and newspaper reports highlighting the issues and raising profile, and several normally loyal newspapers had come out in support of the lawyers’ campaign.
The response to the Consultation, too, was totally unprecedented. 16,000 or more responses, totally united in opposition, all the way from the President of the Supreme Court, through the senior judiciary in the Judicial Executive Board (headed by the Lord Chief Justice), the Crown Court judges and Magistrates, all the professional lawyers’ organisations and a host of charities, representative bodies, and individuals.
Against this is a backdrop of continued and repeated failure in Government contracting exercises, with the interpreter shambles bringing the idiocy of Government actions into sharp focus, as expressed passionately in the debate the previous week. Sir Alan Beith MP described the potential for a “multiple train crash” if the process of reforming legal aid followed the same path as other contracting exercises.
That in a period of 14 days the various Justice Ministers had to face hostile questioning from MPs and Committees on no less than three occasions must have made this a very difficult period.
The climax of all this was to be the appearance of The Lord Chancellor before the Justice Select Committee. He will have been expecting a truly bruising and uncomfortable session in which cross-party MPs, having heard evidence from lawyers on 11 June, asked him detailed questions about his Department’s plans.
We had the Government on the ropes. They had lost most of the arguments. Any attempt to push the preferred PCT option through would have looked totally unreasonable and would have been politically unacceptable.
The will on the part of the professions was there to resist these changes. The mood is that we have had enough. We provide an enormously valuable public service. We often do it unpaid, late at night. The extra unpaid hours keep the system moving. Without our efforts there is no system. It depends on us.
We have in the last few weeks managed to convince a large section of the public, most of the media, and many politicians of the merits of our arguments. If it had come to industrial action of some kind our position could be understood and the impact would be enormously powerful and felt very quickly.
This is a battle which can be won. We were winning hands down. I doubt that MOJ had any idea at all that that would be the case. No doubt they thought the public would buy the fat cat argument and the proposals would pass unnoticed or with indifference. How wrong they were!
It was, therefore, particularly galling to see that on Monday of this week the Law Society chose to reveal its hand. It broke ranks from the unified professions, and in the perception of many of its members – I would stick my neck out and say the vast majority of rank and file criminal solicitors – offered Mr Grayling a way out.
The Law Society plan says nothing at all to resist the cuts the Government wishes to impose. Implicitly it accepts them. It simply says that they will be imposed and suggests ways in which firms might adapt. Whilst the Bar have been proposing ways in which the Government can save money and improve the efficiency of the system at the same time without affecting legal aid, the Law Society plan accepts the Government’s case.
The Society would dispute this, but the plans very firmly benefit larger providers over the smaller ones. There is no acceptance that in many cases smaller providers are more efficient and more adaptable than the larger ones, nor any express recognition or regret that hundreds of firms will be forced to close by their intervention, and thousands of duty solicitors will face redundancy or pay cuts. It is no coincidence that the Big Firms Group were extensively involved in drafting and approving the proposals. The plans benefit the owners of big firms to a hugely disproportionate extent – they benefit from a contraction of the market as smaller firms are forced to sell their practices to the larger operators, or close altogether, and they benefit from the change to the duty solicitor rules, enabling them to reduce their costs base by sacking or demoting many expensive duty solicitors. In some cases this variety of market consolidation could result in less firms in a given area than envisaged under Mr Grayling’s plan.
In their recent attempts to spin their way out of this crisis, the great and the good of the Law Society have denied this. They say that the proposals, if accepted, would protect solicitors from the threat of price competition, that efforts are being made to ease the transition to the new system, that the proposals had been discussed with a wide variety of representative groups, and that there has been no agreement to cuts.
I disagree. The Law Society position throughout this campaign has been to concede that the Government has to, and will, make cuts. Where the Bar has said there need be no cuts because equivalent amounts or larger could be saved or gained from tackling inefficiencies in the system, and the real cost drivers in the CJS, the Law Society just accepted the austerity agenda without ever once challenging it. They were of the view that the Government would not listen to anything else.
To see the damage it is only necessary to look at the opening remarks of Mr Grayling before the Justice Committee. What he said was:
[The Law Society] have said that they accept that we face a very large financial challenge, and they have also accepted the need for consolidation of their sector. They have submitted to us a very interesting proposal as a possible alternative model, which still contracts the marketplace, and we have said we will engage in constructive discussion with them about that.
*These remarks are taken from the as yet uncorrected transcript of the hearing before the JSC.
Mr Grayling then went on to make unfavourable comparisons with the position adopted by the Bar. He portrayed the Bar as unconstructive, and ungrateful because he could have introduced “one case one fee” but had not. Solicitors good, barristers bad.
There have apparently been a number of meetings between the Law Society and the MOJ. It was reported on Twitter that following the JSC hearing the MOJ officials went straight back to Chancery Lane.
So in one fell swoop the Law Society managed to defuse the JSC hearing for Mr Grayling, make it more difficult to argue that cuts are unjustified, deprive the public of the opportunity of having the criminal justice system fully reviewed to remove inefficiencies, divide the Bar from the solicitors, alienate the majority of their members, take the wind out of the #saveukjustice campaign, and divide their members between those who support their proposals (big firms) and everyone else.
Of course, I am not surprised. I knew the Law Society was the weak link. That’s why I penned an open letter to them at the start of this campaign. Their thinking was clear from the tone of their campaigning pack – the first few pages of which make the Government’s case for austerity, rather than make the case for hardworking and dedicated legal aid lawyers – and their response to my open letter was totally defeatist. They would of course say “realistic”.
Pessimists will always say that they are realistic and that those who do not accept their bleak assessment are dreamers. If the “realists” had had their way humankind would still be living in caves. Women would never have got the vote. Nelson Mandela would still be in prison. The Berlin Wall would still be standing.
It is the passion, vision and courage of those who dare to think differently that drives progress. It is the determination of those who do not accept the conventional wisdom that changes the course of history. Here it has been the efforts of a thousand individual lawyers and others that has changed the political reality: politicians got on board and scrutinised the proposals because so many people wrote to them to express their concern, passionately but reasonably. The media got the story because so many people got in touch with them. If I might take a little credit, the first post on this blog shaped the campaign and led to the first national newspaper coverage of this issue. My individual effort counted. The effort of Rachel Bentley in starting the petition counted. The work of everyone who has taken part in the campaign has made a difference. Look at what we can achieve when we work together!
All of that was lost on the Law Society. It is as if the past months never happened. Their stance has not changed since the initial days of the campaign. In spite of all the progress they still think that Mr Grayling could impose his preferred version of PCT because “there is the political will to do so” (In other words because they had a meeting with him and he said he would.)
Why this is wrong
This is wrong. It is wrong because it accepts arguments which in truth have no merit. It is wrong because it allows the system to carry on as inefficiently as ever yet saddles the hardworking lawyers with the entirety of the cost. It is wrong because larger firms are not always better and choice for the public will be diminished. It is wrong because it is detrimental to individual solicitors who have worked hard to achieve their qualifications, only to find their value diminished to benefit big business. It is wrong because solicitors who built up businesses serving their local community will find themselves forced from above to alter the way they provide those services, or even to close down altogether. It is wrong because they have made it easier rather than harder for Mr Grayling to get his own way.
It is also wrong to think that Mr Grayling could act as he threatened. Faced with a passionately well-argued campaign supported by pretty much everyone with any knowledge, and faced with opposition both from within and without the Coalition, my view is that Mr Grayling would have found a way to shelve the more controversial proposals. He conceded on choice not because the Law Society capitulated, but because he had lost the argument and he knew it. With time there would have been other concessions. Even if cuts ultimately had been imposed, they would have cut less deeply.
Finally, it is wrong because there was no mandate whatsoever to make these proposals. Here the Society was going to Government and conceding that (a) cuts are required, in other words that solicitors are paid too much, and (b) that there are too many firms and a large number should be closed or otherwise removed.
You only have to look at comments on recent articles on the Law Society Gazette about this issue to see how little this view is supported.
Where to now?
If you venture into the legal blogosphere right now you can see many erudite blogs about the Ministry of Justice’s proposed “reforms” of the legal aid system.
I’m taking to blogging for the first time to add my voice to the dissenters.
This is a difficult exercise. I am so incensed by the proposals and there are so many points to make that it is difficult to distil them down into any sensible article. I suppose the Powers That Be know that, as it helps them. If you can’t write your campaign slogan on a small yellow sticky note it’s going to be hard to win over the public.
In summary, the Ministry of Justice has unveiled a “consultation” on reforming legal aid, mostly criminal legal aid. Other areas of practice are also hit, and some have already been hit hard in recent months – ask any family lawyer. The current consultation can be seen here. Responses are due by 4 June – every interested citizen, and certainly every criminal lawyer, should respond, and not feel limited by the questions. At the bottom of this article is a link to the petition, which everyone should sign.
In short form, which is not easy, the current proposals are as follows:
- Legally-aided criminal defendants will be deprived of the ability to choose their own solicitor. A defence representative will be allocated to them.
- Only providers (like solicitors’ firms, or more likely large corporations: Serco, G4S, Capita etc) who successfully bid for contracts, which run for three years initially, will be able to provide legal aid criminal advice and representation. They will succeed if, having satisfied pretty basic quality and delivery criteria, they bid the lowest price per unit of work.
- The majority of work would be paid per unit, i.e. one case. Bidding providers will set their own price in the auction, but the ceiling for such prices is a deduction of 17.5% from current average costs. The reality is that to be ensured of victory the bids will be much lower than this.
- In any given Criminal Justice System area (basically the counties, with some exceptions) the number of providers will be limited. In Nottinghamshire 6, in Lincolnshire 4, in Manchester 37, etc. Each provider gets an equal share of the available work, fixed and immovable. The number of providers (ie. firms) drops from 1,600 to a maximum of 400 but in reality more like 40 or so nationwide.
- The proposals cover all legal aid litigation work (i.e. the solicitor side of things) including in the Crown Court.
- There are significant cuts for other fees too, most notably advocacy fees in the Crown Court, and fees in Very High Cost Criminal Cases (VHCCs). These escape contracting, for the time being at least.
There is no discussion in the paper as to whether this model is the best way of going forward, or whether it is necessary at all. That has led me to put “consultation” in inverted commas because it seems to me that MOJ is not really interested in the answers.
If you want further confirmation of that, note that Chris Grayling, Secretary of State for Justice, has recently pronounced that the time for such exercises would be reduced, so instead of three months we get eight weeks. That might be fine if details were known in advance and only a small number of organisations needed to respond. It’s not adequate when the proposals were veiled until they were revealed to the press on the morning of the launch at the start of the consultation period. It’s not adequate when the proposals are so complex and need very careful analysis. It’s not adequate when it must be known to MOJ that many of the stakeholders who need to respond will need to analyse and convene special meetings with a number of very busy people in order to agree a corporate position.
Add to that that the questions asked in the consultation document don’t go to the heart of the issue:
- Is there any other area in which MOJ spends money and in which it could be saved?
- Is price competitive tendering going to save money, bearing in mind the cost of bringing it in?
- What will the plans do to the justice system as a whole?
- What are the costs associated with the plans which are not directly accountable to the MOJ departmental budget, e.g. miscarriages of justice, delays in the court system, redundancies in the legal sector, the closure of firms which were supported by crime but offered other services?
- And the most basic question of all, namely do you agree that price competitive tendering is a suitable mechanism for rationing legal aid expenditure?
MOJ does not ask those questions. It would rather that people find it difficult or impossible to respond, and so fail to do so, and it doesn’t ask the above questions because it will not like, and therefore does not care about, the answers. (That doesn’t mean that you can’t give them the answers – if you do respond then feel free to object, and you should say so as often and in as many ways as possible.)
Be under no illusions. This is not an exercise in Government reaching out to citizens and asking for suggestions as to the best way forward. This is a rubber stamping exercise on decisions which have already been taken.
So what we have here is a failure to ask the basic questions, and instead asking about the details. To draw a rather bleak analogy (because that’s how I feel right now), this is the hangman asking the condemned as he steps onto the trapdoor not, “Would you prefer it if I don’t pull this lever?” but:
“Would Sir prefer a blue hood over his head, or maybe this nice yellow one?”
What will be the effects of these changes?
The proposals will all but destroy UK justice. Although our justice system is often criticised in the press, it should be remembered that our courts and our lawyers are regarded as some of the best in the World. We are an exemplar of how justice should be done. Our Government should be proud of the courts and what they achieve.
Unfortunately, if these proposals go through, that will no longer be the case.
Quality will no longer have a place
At present, the market regulates quality. In general, solicitors who provide a good service tend to be instructed more regularly by clients, and grow as a result. Barristers are equally market regulated. “You’re only as good as your last case” as the old adage goes.
The new system removes that. Quality is considered at a preliminary stage in the tendering process, and is likely to be largely a tick box exercise which the majority can comply with.
However, quality has no impact in the final bid round and the decision as to who gets the contract. Only the lowest bidders will succeed. A bid could be ten times the quality but if it is £1 too much the bid may fail.
It’s worse than that. Once the contracts are in place the market share is fixed and the volume of work will never exceed the allocated portion, so in an area with four providers they will each get one quarter of the cases. No more. No less. No matter what happens (pretty much). So there is no incentive at all to provide a good service. A Gold Standard of service, or a plastic toilet brush standard of service, will equate to the same thing. No provider will benefit from providing a great service, and no provider will be punished in the market for providing a poor service.
The only commercial necessity will be to provide a cheap service. That is inevitable when only the lowest bidders will succeed and there are built in cost ceilings but no floor, leading to deep cuts in what can realistically be provided. Quality for its own sake has no value.
As far as clients are concerned, this will manifest itself in a number of ways:
- Face to face meetings with the lawyers involved will end, except perhaps at court. There will be no time to dedicate to discussing the case, ironing out the problems, or winning trust.
- Preparation will be limited to the minimum. Material may not be read properly, videos may not be watched, experts may not be instructed.
- Clients will ever increasingly be represented by in-house advocates. That’s the only way to make this profitable. This is not always a bad thing (I am such a person) but it is the death knell for the independent Bar, and with it all the skills necessary for the prosecution and defence of the most serious cases.
You might wonder why you should care. The answer is that the above issues have a knock-on effect at court. Cases which are not properly prepared have a way of going wrong. People are wrongly convicted, trials are lengthened or adjourned because it becomes apparent that there have been issues overlooked, cases which should have pleaded or cracked don’t do so because the discussions haven’t taken place or there is a lack of trust between lawyer and client. In the worst cases juries may have to be discharged, or convictions may be quashed because there is a doubt as to whether they were safe.
All of that adds up to wasted court time, and lives ruined. Victims have to undergo the ordeal of a trial more than once if the jury is discharged and the prosecution have to have a second go. They may be distressed by that, or may not turn up the second time leading to a potentially unjust acquittal. On the other side of the card, innocent people find themselves in prison, away from their families, with no job. Their families may end up having to claim benefits, or be made homeless. They may not be able to get a job on release, even if exonerated on appeal. They may develop depression and other disorders. Some may even commit suicide. There are huge costs whenever these sorts of things happen. These costs and wider impacts have not been taken into account.
And if the independent bar fails, our court system will be much the poorer and very serious criminals may escape justice.
The End of the High Street Solicitor
In towns up and down the country there are small or medium firms of solicitors which undertake a mix of work. In recent years they’ve been squeezed from all sides: increased regulation, competition from banks and large insurance firms, online competition, the collapse of the housing market.
All of those firms are small businesses employing a number of people. Even the very smallest usually involves at least one or two solicitors and an administrator or secretary.
For many these High Street firms are the face of the law in their local area. They provide face to face advice on all manner of issues, from divorces to conveyancing, boundary disputes to wills.
Many of these firms do criminal law too. Their specialists know the local area, know the police officers and courts (or at least they did before the local court was closed by MOJ last year), and above all know the client base.
All that knowledge is useful, as it means discussions with clients and others are informed. A witness cannot pull the wool over the lawyer’s eyes because of that knowledge, and neither can a client. A client can’t say “in that previous burglary I was only a lookout” because the solicitor knows otherwise from the last case. A client can’t say “I’ve never had a drug problem” because the solicitor knows about that too. The regular MO is known, as are their associates and hangouts. It all helps to smooth the path of justice and avoid problems which stem from a lack of knowledge.
That’s not all.
The steady flow of criminal work subsidises the other services offered. It is not necessarily the case that a firm can keep running with crime stripped out, especially with the other savage cuts elsewhere in the legal aid system.
These small to medium firms have next to no chance of successfully winning a contract. They can’t afford the expansion which may be required, or to operate with the low prices necessitated by the new arrangements.
If they don’t win a contract, they may have to make their criminal lawyers redundant. It doesn’t end there. The criminal secretaries and junior clerks also have to go. The agency which helps them with police stations goes as well. So do the numerous experts, enquiry agents and other providers.
Then the firm has to ask if the family lawyers who’d been just about hanging on after April’s cuts remain worthwhile. Probably not, so they and their team lose their jobs.
The personal injury lawyers have had a difficult time as well, with reductions in recoverable fees, and they may not be viable.
The conveyancing partner, struggling in a weak housing market, also faces difficulties.
Before long, the entire firm is not economically viable and the entire business folds. All its staff, lawyers and non-lawyers, lose their jobs and there is nowhere else for them to go because the majority of other local firms are in the same position. Their offices are vacated and become empty eyesores on the High Street.
For the client wanting a will drawn up or a house sold, they have no choice. Where previously they might have obtained an online quote but gone to their local solicitor who they can trust and visit face to face, they no longer have that option. It’s the large online company or nothing.
That lack of competition has an impact. Online providers can put their prices up because they no longer have effective competition on the High Street. Inevitably the few High Street firms remaining put their prices up too – with less income from other sources they have to pay their leases somehow.
If these changes come in you can expect to see the effective end of the High Street solicitor within two years or so.
This is not me being paranoid. The Government in its paper recognises that the minimum level of firms leaving the criminal sector is 1,200. That level assumes that there are no new entrants to the market, and no bidder makes a play for more than one area.
The reality of these plans is that upwards of 1,500 firms will leave that market, and many or even most will close their doors for the last time.
The End of the Criminal Bar
Meanwhile, the barristers suffer too. The High Street solicitors who sent their work have gone, so Chambers – already faced with increased volumes of work being covered in house – have to go cap in hand to the new contract providers.
Those providers have to be merciless to make their low bid worthwhile. They drive a hard bargain and counsel find themselves working as agents on fixed fees for a fraction of the actual cost. The work which went to local chambers goes to different, cheaper, sets. Quality is driven down and counsel also find it impossible to survive.
With the solicitors’ profession weakened after the divide and rule approach taken by the Government succeeded, the Bar is in a weak position to resist the onward extension of price competitive tendering. The Bar ends up having to scrape the barrel for the fees available once advocacy services have been put out to tender, or more likely subsumed into the litigator fee as part of a “one case one fee” arrangement.
The Government is clearly trying to divide the professions so that it isn’t faced with unified solicitors and barristers. That’s why Crown Court advocacy is presently excluded from contracting.
That’s not how it’ll stay. It will only be a short time before a one case one fee (OCOF, or presumably in this case Criminal One Case One Fee, er… COCOF!) arrangement comes in. The Bar would have no power to resist, the criminal solicitors would not assist because they’d all be redundant, and the final nail in the coffin of the independent Bar would be hammered home. Its loss would be mourned only by those few who still believe in the luxury of justice.
This would suit the large corporations who would now be running all aspects of the justice system. After all, at that stage you could be investigated by a G4S contractor, held in police cells and looked after by a G4S Civilian Detention Officer, conveyed to the Court cells and detained there by GeoAmey or G4S staff, defended by a corporate representative from SercoLegal or similar, and remanded or held after conviction in a prison run by Serco or G4S. If you’re released subject to an electronically monitored (tagged) curfew at any stage they’ll be monitoring that, and prosecute any breaches.
This is not good for justice. It is arguably not that great for shareholders of those big companies, until you realise that once the traditional supplier base of independent solicitors and barristers has been destroyed, they can put their prices up.
Victims and defendants, the Court and Judges, and society as a whole would be poorly served. The expertise of the solicitors, and of the Bar – particularly at the senior end – would be lost, and gone forever. The pool of advocates who make up the majority of our criminal judges would also be drained.
Within a few years our legal system would be but a pale shadow of its former self.
The End of Client Choice
Removing client choice is essential to the operation of the plans. Equal market share cannot be guaranteed if clients can choose where to go. We end up with a system of allocated lawyers foisted on unwilling clients.
This is a major constitutional change. It brings us closer to the system in some other jurisdictions, most notably the US, where lawyers are allocated to defendants. You need only read some of the harrowing tales about poorly defended cases in the US courts to know how well that works.
I have already referred to some of the advantages of a lawyer – client relationship, and the lack of any quality incentive.
With the end of client choice, work with the established criminals who make up a large proportion of the work of the courts will be much harder. At present an experienced and familiar lawyer, or even an unfamiliar one from a trusted firm, can make things run much more smoothly because the relationship enables often unpalatable advice to be given and accepted much more easily.
It is perhaps not appreciated by the majority that what happens in a criminal case is in the hands of the defendant. Criminal defendants are usually disadvantaged, they may not understand everything that happens, they may not necessarily want to co-operate with the process. They probably didn’t get into that situation by being sensible and right-thinking members of the public. Left to their own devices many will simply plead not guilty and deny everything even if the evidence is totally against them. Others may need a trial but have difficulty conveying their case to the court, or even to their lawyer. Some will refuse to talk or discuss at all until they can trust their team.
In the hands of good, trusted (chosen) lawyers, the number of trials is reduced because those who ought to plead guilty can do so trusting that it is the best thing to do, those for whom there is a sensible compromise plea can get into that situation as a result of the lawyers negotiating, and the trials are sharply focused on the right areas of dispute and therefore kept as short and easily manageable as possible.
These changes will lead to an increase in the number of trials, and an increase in the number of applications to vacate guilty pleas. That’s expensive but again has not been factored in.
The proposals give no credence to the advantages of the current system and do not recognise its benefits.
The End of Justice
Make no mistake, these proposals are not about getting a better deal for the taxpayer.
If this was an open debate about how to save money in the public interest the MOJ could have come to those who work in the system – from the police all the way through the CPS, Probation, the Courts, and defence solicitors and barristers, and asked what the way forward should be. With a good faith approach there would have been a good faith response and many good suggestions would have been made.
There has been no such approach, and the matter is apparently not up for debate now.
Instead, MOJ has spent taxpayers’ money negatively briefing the media about “fat cat lawyers”, knowing that these claims are untrue or misleading, and has come up with proposals which will destroy the present justice system, lead to many delays in the court system and will fail victims, defendants, witnesses and their families, and will destroy both sides of the legal professions. Many thousands of hardworking people will lose their jobs, and valuable local businesses will shut down.
I know that it’s hard to inspire any sympathy for legal aid lawyers, or lawyers of any kind. The Secretary of State for Justice pretty much says so in his recent consultation paper when he observes that the system has lost much of its credibility with the public. But of course the only reason the system lacks credibility is because elected politicians have failed to accept the responsibility for defending this valuable system and confronting misunderstandings and misinformation. They have instead compounded those issues.
This is, of course, deeply ironic, because neither politicians nor the more popular press are renowned either for their morals or integrity, nor are they known in some cases for a lack of a tendency to line their own pockets at public expense (and indeed to use the services of criminal lawyers), yet for some reason much of the population are prepared to trust their judgement on this issue.
This is deeply worrying. The rule of law is a fundamental feature of a democratic society; the courts, and those who work in or serving them, should be respected.
It is a basic responsibility, indeed duty, of any sensible elected politician, and particularly a Lord Chancellor with the role of Secretary of State for Justice, to properly educate the public about the importance of the legal system, and to respect and uphold its traditions.
What we have, however, is repeated denigration of the system and its practioners. We have respect for human rights undermined by elected politicians misrepresenting decisions of the courts (see Catgate for example), we have elected politicians using criminal cases in support of wholly different policy agendas without regard for what the courts actually said (the recent Philpott case), we have lawyers repeatedly portrayed as “fat cats” when the statistics themselves are misleading and in any event the small sample used is not in any way representative.
All of this is calculated to make it more difficult for lawyers who work within the system to win the public over. It is calculated to make sure that justice is understood only as “criminals going to prison” and never “person falsely accused acquitted”, or even that most unpalatable “the Prosecution failed to prove their case so the right verdict was not guilty, whatever anyone suspected”. Defence lawyers are those who sponge off the system being paid extortionate amounts of money to get people off on technicalities.
This forgets that legal aid is important because it ensures that the most vulnerable in society are legally represented. It contributes to the rule of law and the right of everyone to have a fair trial. Even those technical points taken by the lawyers have a social and legal utility – they develop and clarify the law and ensure that justice is done within the law and not outside its confines.
The fairness of a country’s justice system is a good barometer for the freedom of that society. Democracy is founded on the rule of law. Without the rule of law it becomes rule of the powerful and unscrupulous. The kinds of societies in which people can be imprisoned without fair trials and without evidence being required are not the sorts of societies in which most of us want to live.
For a justice system based on adversarial trials, where each side presents its case and tests that of the other in order to provide the court with an opportunity to find the truth, you need both sides to be roughly equally balanced. Both sides need to be competent and able to operate.
Once you have a situation in which one side is more powerful than the other, or one side is better represented than the other, or even in which one side is somehow regarded as less worthy than the other, the adversarial system no longer works properly.
And that is a tragedy for us all.
What can be done?
For a start, don’t accept everything you read in the newspapers about this. Much of it may be wrong.
If you disagree with the plans, write to your MP and tell them. You can find out who your MP is here.
Sign the petition: Save UK Justice.
Respond to the consultation and tell them you fundamentally disagree. Answer the unasked questions.