Below is a copy of the speech I gave at today’s Kent Critical Law Society ‘Save Legal Aid’ seminar. I was asked to talk about the impact of the legal aid cuts from the point of view as my role as a caseworker and law student. I spoke alongside Sheona, a solicitor at the Kent Law Clinic, and Kate, a voluntary caseworker at Refugee Help.
Kent Critical Law Society – my speech
I did not know what I wanted to do when I left school. I worked as a secretary and applied for a job in a solicitors office. I worked as a legal secretary for around 10 years. I always had an interest in the law, I wanted to learn and help people in the process.
I took some time off to have my daughter and when I went back to work, I got a job in a criminal law firm. Soon after, I knew my interest had become slightly obsessive as I was doing research at home and decided to start the law degree part time in the evenings. I want to become a lawyer. Not for the money, but to help people. I want to set a good example to my children that we must help everyone, no matter who they are.
At the moment, my heart is set on becoming a criminal solicitor. There is no money to be made in legal aid, and particularly in crime. I want to work in legal aid because there are people who are accused of crimes, been ill-treated by the state or are in desperate need of help. Those people need lawyers. Those lawyers need to know that there is a viable profession for them to do so. I cannot afford to bring up and support my family on an extremely low wage, working long hours. Those that work in criminal law, do not work from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. There are days and nights were solicitors are on call, have to attend the police station, and then, with little or no sleep, have to attend Court the next day to represent someone. If these proposals come in, there will be NO next generation legal aid lawyers.
I work for Kent Defence, and we are actively involved in this campaign. We have recently been interviewed for the local paper and are in contact with other Kent firms to that end: http://kentdefence.wordpress.com/2014/03/07/lawyers-go-on-strike-over-fees/
Legal aid rates have not risen with inflation since 1990s. Future lawyers are not going to be able to maintain a secure career. The average salary of a criminal solicitor is £25,000. Not much for the 8 years it will take me to get there. By comparison, I once worked as a legal secretary in London for £30,000.
I attended an event last year held by the Young Legal Aid Lawyers. It was about social mobility in the legal aid field and how those who are studying, and want to make a career in legal aid, are struggling to maintain steady and secure employment.
A previous report by the Young Legal Aid Lawyers states that: “aspiring lawyers from diverse backgrounds are finding it harder than ever to forge a career in legal aid… those from low-income families cannot afford to become legal aid lawyers and the legal aid profession is therefore becoming less and less representative of the people it serves: those without means”.
It is really worth having a look at their website.
The Government’s “Transforming Legal Aid” Consultations and the impact
The Ministry of Justice held an initial consultation period which began in April 2013, which I consider to be rushed and ill-thought through. This consultation resulted in around 16,000 responses. These responses forced a u-turn on client choice and Price Competitive Tendering. One of the many ludicrous suggestions was that a defendant would be allocated to a solicitor by the letter in which his or her surname started.
The second consultation period, as damning as the first, ‘Transforming Legal Aid: Next Steps’ is over. The Ministry of Justice state that they received over 2,000 responses.
Criminal Legal Aid Fee Cuts
The cuts to legal aid will result in lower fees per case, therefore a lower quality representation. Not through standards of a solicitor but through lack of time and resources.
The cuts to legal aid rates will lead to a financial catastrophe for most law firms. The first lot of cuts come in today (20th March 2014) – 8.75%. Some percentages may differ, dependant on type of case and where the firm is based.
For those firms who survive these cuts, will find it increasingly difficult to continue to cope, particularly as there are further cuts being made in 2015.
Firms will be trying to make any profit they can in the circumstances. Those that survive the cull will inevitably have to make redundancies. This means that any firm would need to reduce salaries/staff numbers by 24%, in order to have a chance to continue functioning. The suggested fee cuts (at varying levels depending on case type) are completely unsustainable. Lawyers are being forced out of the profession.
The biggest MoJ spin is that the British legal aid spend is spiralling out of control. This is wrong. The legal aid spend is falling year on year.
The removal of Legal Aid – non-crime
Removing legal aid for Judicial Review cases is the most astonishing for me. How does an individual who has been wronged by the state have any chance in bringing proceedings if they cannot afford it. The simple answer is that they would not. The government would be given more powers of abuse than ever before, with no one to answer to. This makes an absolute mockery of something which our country stands for and believes in – the Rule of Law. Every citizen is subject to the law, and no ruler should be above the law.
Lord Neuberger said last summer: “One must be very careful about any proposals whose aim is to cut down the right to judicial review. The courts have no more important function than that of protecting citizens from the abuses and excesses of the executive – central government, local government, or other public bodies. Cutting the cost of legal aid deprives the very people who most need the protection of the courts of the ability to get legal advice and representation.”
Removing legal aid for prison law is an absolute travesty. Take, for example, the young woman (amongst others) who had suffered serious sexual abuse at Yarls Wood Immigration Centre. With no legal aid, that abuse would continue and those victims would not have a voice.
Here is an article I wrote about legal aid, prison law and Yarls Wood: http://legalvoice.org.uk/topstories/legal-aid-prison-law-nasty-politics
Another example: a woman who had been segregated for more than five years at HMP Bronzefield. The Ministry of Justice state that legal aid taken away for worthless complaints, such as no TV. These are examples of serious cases of people who need urgent legal assistance. The removal of legal aid will not allow this to happen.
The Ministry says that they need to encourage public confidence – when in fact, 2 in 3 people are opposed to the cuts to legal aid. It is not legal aid that needs public confidence, it is the government.
However, what does not help our plight is the public’s perception of those who use legal aid. The press add fuel to the flame by writing articles about how much money is wasted. The public perceive those arrested as guilty, benefit scrounging, waste of space. Most of the Daily Mail articles which talk about legal aid have a comment underneath calling for the death penalty. That is what lawyers are up against. It is an impossible fight.
If these proposals go through in their current form, our justice system, which is held to be the most sophisticated in the world, will be destroyed beyond repair.
What lawyers are doing
There have been two strike days where barristers did not attend Court. However, the Court were put on notice so disruption was minimised.
The Bar are now undertaking a no returns policy, which means that no other barrister can cover their work if they are unavailable. This is causing disruption to Court as it is becoming increasingly difficult to list cases.
News in the last week
This week, the High Court has rejected a challenge by charities working with prisoners over legal aid cuts introduced by Justice Secretary Chris Grayling.
The Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prisoners’ Advice Service (PAS) say vulnerable people in the prison system, including inmates with mental health problems and mothers with young babies, will suffer injustice following the removal of the right to criminal legal aid in many prison law cases.
Lady Justice Rafferty and Mr Justice Cranston said: “But we simply cannot see, at least at this point in time, how these concerns can arguably constitute unlawful action by the Lord Chancellor.”
Yesterday, there was a national criminal lawyers meeting held in Manchester. Further details can be found here: http://kentdefence.wordpress.com/2014/03/19/kent-defence-attend-criminal-lawyers-meeting-19-03-14/
Solicitors discussed refusal to work at the lower rate, solicitors to stand by the bar in any days of action, will not conduct any work without a legal aid order, training days on 31st March and 1st April including police stations and court duty schemes, discussion over whether or not to sign any new contracts and many more.
We need action on 1st April, Grayling’s birthday.
Here is the link to the petition – https://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/david-cameron-uk-government-save-legal-aid-to-protect-access-to-justice-for-all – please share and sign it.