Oliver Kirk interviewed by Julia George on BBC Radio Kent in relation to the government’s proposals to ‘transform’ legal aid, particularly in relation to Kent and Thanet.
He says there are 35 practices across Kent who cover geographical areas as far apart as Sevenoaks, Dartford and Ramsgate. The Government proposes that all of those various practices be replaced with 5 firms who cover the whole of Kent. No legal aid practices will be untouched by this. No legal aid firms already cover the whole of Kent on a day-to-day basis. This will affect the way the whole legal aid system across Kent.
Q – Will this introduce superfirms across the county?
The Government’s plan is that firms should be more efficient. That will involve in centralisation. It is very, very unlikely that there will be a firm in Thanet, or even East Kent. If the proposals go ahead, the sensible thing to do would be to place an office in a place like Maidstone, in the centre of Kent. The reality is that it is unlikely that suspects or defendants from Margate or Ramsgate will have a solicitor within 30-40 miles.
Q – If these changes go ahead, what is impact will it have upon clients?
The real impact is going to be from the Government’s proposal to remove the right to choose their own lawyer. Anyone who is arrested will be given a solicitor, who may not be somebody who they trust. That is important because trust underpins whole justice system. They will trust their lawyer and feel that they have a proper crack at the whip. The Government’s proposals are that fees are restructured so that a guilty plea and a not guilty plea, going to trial, are the same fee. A client might say “Hold on, is he giving me the right advice? After all, he is not going to make any money if I have a trial”, that undermines the trust in the advice he is receiving, which means that people who might otherwise trust their lawyer, and put in a plea of guilty, might test those proceedings or represent themselves.
Q – Describe a good trusting relationship between you and your clients.
I can give examples only from own experience. If there is clear evidence, I will tell them that I think they are unlikely to be found not guilty. Sometimes that results in a person saying they will plead guilty. That has affects on the money spent, because there will be no trial. Also, the victim does not have to come to court and get cross examined. Everyone gets justice at the end of the day. It is, of course, an ordeal to appear in public to say I am a victim of crime.
Q – Were you surprised that Ministry of Justice have not carried out a risk assessment on the impact on witnesses and victims if the proposals go ahead?
It does not surprise me, because the proposals have been thrown together in a extraordinary rush. We also had to respond in a extraordinary rush. The Government have not thought through the consequences of people who are essential to the criminal justice system, namely the victims. The way the Government have dealt with is not a surprise.
Q – Tell me about you and your job. Most people think that solicitors are rolling in it.
There is an element of self-interest, but what this is really about is criminal justice generally and the way it treats everyone involved in it.
I know the suggestion that lawyers are paid X, but let me assure you that solicitors are not ‘rolling in it’. That is not the case. Criminal defence lawyers work 6 or 7 days a week, they are on call 24/7 and we do not earn fantastic sums which you might imagine.
The President of Law Society whilst giving evidence to the Justice Select Committee last week, said that the average wage for a criminal solicitor is £24,000. That is less than nurses, teachers, and some police officers. We are not rolling in it. Of course there is an element of self interest, but it is not about lawyers’ money. We are not up in arms about this because Government is proposing to cut our incomes, but that the Government are proposing to restructure the criminal justice system, which will in turn completely undermine it.
Julia George finishes by confirming that Laura Sandys MP was unable to give interview due to prior engagements. The Government says that our legal system costs £2 billion per year, and is the most expensive legal aid system in the world. They insist that quality professional lawyers will still be available, and say that they are considering responses and alternatives which will deliver the same amount of savings.
If you want to help fight against the legal aid cuts, then simply click here and sign the petition: http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/48628