I am passing on a comment to the MoJ’s consultation paper regarding legal aid and competitive tendering. The response belongs to a learned colleague of mine. His name is Will Nelson and is a criminal lawyer. He is a much better writer than me, and has kindly given his permission for me to publish this on his behalf.
For reference, please see the MoJ’s consultation paper here: www.justice.gov.uk/downloads/consultations/transforming-legal-aid.pdf
And the petition here – please take a minute to sign it – and you’ll find out why it is so important to fight against the government’s decision below: http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/48628
“I start by saying that I have a vested interest in all of you signing this petition. If the proposals that this petition is seeking to highlight happen I along with about 5000 other people will lose their jobs. Now I know that those of you who are my friends will probably say something like “that’s a shame” and will genuinely, for a few minutes feel a bit down for me. However what I suspect is that none of you will realise the greater significance that lays behind this.
Since this government came into power via the back door, they have systematically been eroding the justice system in the name of saving money, improving efficiency and giving the tax payer value for money. All of those are entirely laudable aims and I certainly would not seek to criticise them for so doing. That is I would not seek to do so if these aims were in fact the truth of the matter. What this really is about as usual is politics. The Coalition started on this economic course and despite repeated calls to slow down or try something new, they have chosen to stand fast and plough on, regardless of the damage this will cause. You can see it around you in every public service. They have decimated the police force leaving officers under paid, overwhelmed and demoralised. Huge chunks have been sliced from the NHS, crippling front line services. The benefits system is in chaos, and the public have been turned against what is a fundamental part of our society and a need for social well being. I know brilliant teachers that have had enough and despite their love of the profession feel that their position has simply been made untenable. The list goes on and on.
So to Justice. The concept is not just about capturing criminals and punishing them in the way that The Daily Mail would have you believe but is the cotton that binds the fabric of our society together. We all rely upon justice every day in everything we do. The rule of law is fundamental to the safe guarding of all those rights and privileges that living in a democracy you would expect. Justice, in essence protects you from wrong doing. The erosion of this concept is to expose you to the possibility that a wrong done to you by state, corporation or private person will go unresolved. It is therefore vitally important that all of us have access to justice.
Since the coalition have come into power they have sought to erode access to justice at an unprecedented rate. Furthermore, this has been happening at a time when it has never been more important to have such access. As more cuts take effect, the economy lurches (both here and abroad) from crisis to crisis and people lose livelihoods, public services, savings and with increasing bills not to mention higher taxes, it becomes more important that people can seek redress.
Let me give you some examples; let’s say that you have been working all your life and you suddenly lose your job in ways you feel may be unfair. First of all even though you have lost your salary and probably cannot pay your bills, you are not entitled to any free legal advice to help you consider whether the termination of your employment was lawful. You are immediately on an unequal footing with the organisation that you believe may be in the wrong. Then you decide the time has come to cash in on some of the national insurance you have been paying all those years. The benefit system is so complicated that even those administering it get it wrong. You are now no longer entitled to any legal help in securing those payments, or challenging a decision you think is incorrect. Remember also, if you fill those forms in incorrectly, you may be committing an offence for which you can be sent to prison. There are many more scenarios that may effect you. These are not changes that will only effect “work shy scroungers” as the right wing press have been so careful to have you believe. These changes stop you getting the access to justice you may really need one day. Those that will still get access are those that can afford to pay thousands. Are those who can afford to pay really the people who need access the most?
Now to crime. It is perfectly acceptable for you to think this really never will effect me. In fact I suspect you will be thinking that those that require legal help in defending criminal cases probably do not deserve it in any case. I have to say that there are a great many people that I come across who frankly attract very little sympathy even from me. I’m not going to try and lecture you on why everyone deserves the right to be represented, however I think it needs to be said. If you are accused of a crime by the state, it is your right to have someone qualified to do so, to speak on your behalf. Not to have this protection would very quickly lead you into a situation like those we see today in North Korea and other less democratic nations. Let me tell you, no one, absolutely no one is too far removed to be arrested for a criminal offence, charged, taken through the courts. In fact it is pretty easy to find yourself in very serious trouble very quickly. Consider these examples; you are driving home from work, you look down for a second to change a song on your iPod or the station on your radio and when you look up you realise the car in front has stopped and you haven’t reacted in time. The person in the car in front that you hit is killed. You are arrested, taken to a police station and following an interview you are charged with causing death by careless driving. You go to court where you are found guilty and you are sent to prison for 12 months. Prior to changing that track on your iPod you hadn’t even had a parking ticket. Would you not want access to a lawyer to guide and advise you and speak on your behalf? How about adding insult to injury. Lets say that you have the money to pay that lawyer. You are found not guilty. You are not entitled to all or possible any of the money you paid out defending yourself against the state. In effect you have been taxed for the right to defend yourself and protect your liberty. Now that should really piss you off. If it doesn’t re-read this paragraph as you have not understood it.
I know that is an extreme example but it doesn’t have to even be that. I know that there are plenty of you who still smoke weed or indulge in other extracurricular activities that are illegal. I know that there are plenty of you that have got into scuffles on a night out. All of these things that you do as ordinary, hard working, normally law abiding citizens can bring you into contact with the criminal justice system. Your life and career as you know it can be wrecked in an instant.
Under these proposals, you will lose the right to choose who represents you. You may have to travel miles to see your appointed solicitor on the other side of the county. If you are lucky enough to qualify for legal aid, (I suspect only a handful of you will even be close) the service you will get will frankly be below par. There will be no incentive for lawyers to be the best. There will be no competition so no reason to up your game as there is now. Criminal lawyers now trade on the strength of their reputations. Next year you won’t need a reputation. Let me tell you this too. Criminal lawyers, in fact most lawyers that are paid by the state, do not live in mansions. We do not drive brand new BMWs. Most like me are screwed by the debt that they had to incur to become a lawyer. I live in a two up two down house in a small village. i drive a nine year old car. Most of us work very long hours 7 days a week. I was on call last night. I had 13 calls, I did not go to bed and I did not get paid anything for the privilege. I do this job because I believe in it, because most of the time its rewarding, challenging and I can make a difference. Do not be fooled by the press into thinking we are complaining because we are losing our cushy lifestyles. We are complaining because we are losing our jobs and because the thing that we fight to preserve everyday as lawyers is being taken away from you. The access you should have to justice.
This government do not understand you. They do not come from where you do and none of them have had to strive in the way you have. They know they will be gone in two years. Do not let them lay waste to this country on their way out the door.
Thanks for reading.”
Thank you from me too, and thank you to Will. A great peice of writing, I am sure you will agree.