Vox Pops

I have a guilty secret. Since the first consultation on Legal Aid “reform” was published I have read the Daily Mail more than ever before. In fact I now have my own online account that allows me to comment on Daily Mail articles. I cannot help myself. I should actually say it used to allow me to comment. None of my comments seem to make it past moderation now, despite the fact that they are distinctly moderate.

It is often said that we are not going to be able to win the public over. There are many ways that is true. But the problem is not convincing them about how right we are now. It is convincing them that every Government sponsored concept of us as a profession is wrong.

I wish I could sit down and have a conversation with every one of those vox pops who comment on the articles. However I cannot. If I could the conversation might go something like this

“One of the reasons that the [Legal Aid] bill is so high is that cases take too long. See what happens in reasonable countries in the rest of the world and we should be able to find a method of shortening all trials without losing justice”

I have no doubt that if you ask any Judge then they will tell you that experienced and competent advocates save court time. It certainly is quicker than having non-lawyers conduct their own hearings.

“When the legal system in this country returns to being dedicated to the cause of justice and not as a mechanism to enrich legal professionals you might expect some support. At the moment I rate them only slightly higher than estate agents in the honesty and truthfulness stakes.”

The enrichment of legal professionals is something I will return to in a bit. However the idea that the public question our honesty and truthfulness saddens me. My honest thought? Being dishonest runs contrary to the very essence of being a barrister. Truthfully? We never speak a lie. We do not tell the client what to say or what defence to run. If we know something contrary to our case we have to reveal it to the court. Liars and cheats are soon found out in my world. Now if you make the system about people paying privately, putting the lawyers in the pockets of rich criminals, now then you have a system where the decades of integrity may be destroyed.

“So the Q.C / Barristers and Solicitiors can see their GRAVY TRAIN is about to be derailed. And so it should be, now maybe they will start to work for a living instead of claiming their OVER INFLATED PRICES.”

I may pause to observe that CAPSLOCK is the friend of the litigant in person. More importantly would be the question of our “over inflated prices”. The public at large have no idea that the vast majority of criminal legal aid work is undertaken for fixed fees. We do not set the rates. The Government set the rates after independent review. In 2007. At rates lower than recommended. Then cut them some more. So they are not our over inflated prices. In fact inflation has played no part in the prices at all as they have not risen in seven years. The lawyer in a criminal legal aid case has little to no influence over the fee they are paid. It is writ in stone.

“The only people legal aid helped were those on benefits and prisoners. Normal people were out of the loop as usual.”

Legal Aid was available to help the majority of people facing criminal charges before the Crown Court. Many of whom are people of previous good character who would never have thought they would be in the predicament they are in. Some of whom may even be innocent. Following the cuts proposed people on benefits will still have access to Legal Aid. However the proposed changes will take out some middle income, middle class households from the safety net of expert assistance in their time of need.

“Its money for Jam plus expences [sic] , same old faces again and again and again at Court, the same lame mitigations again and again. You should only be allowed to get legal aid in five year chunks. Because the first time people come before a criminal court on legal aid should be their last, not pandering for career criminals and the revolving door of so called British Justice.”

Plus expenses? I am sorry, you have mistaken me for a member of parliament. The vast majority of work undertaken by the Bar does not attract any additionally payment for expenses. And we have lots of overheads. Travel. Clothing. Books. Insurance. Staff. So the payments you see are not a payment to an individual for their “wage” but a payment to a business. That does things like emply your next door neighbour. And the idea of giving legal aid in five year chunks…. Why is it any more likely that the police would “fit up” someone who has never been in trouble than it is the local pain in the backside? It isn’t. In fact rather than going around fitting up cabinet ministers the majority of proven miscarriages of justice have been perpetrated against someone with form that the police “like” for an offence.

“Parasitic thieves who add nothing to society.”

There are many who view the rule of law is the very cornerstone of a democratic society. It is no exaggeration to say that people have fought and died to preserve or achieve the sort of liberties we take for granted. The sort of liberties that are protected by the rule of law. You cannot have laws without lawyers. That idea that all lawyers add nothing to society is difficult to fathom. It is born out of an idea of ambulance chasing lawyers. Or lawyers representing terrorists on Human Rights points for their own sake. I am afraid it is a view promoted by the Government. I am afraid it is a lie. When someone has their house burgled or something even worse happens to them or someone they love they expect and are entitled to all the protection that the state provides them. That includes highly skilled and highly dedicated prosecution lawyers. I know of rape victims that have sent the prosecution advocate a gift or a note of thanks. Parasitic theives who add nothing to society? Wrong. Just plain wrong.

“Figures published last week showed more than 1,000 lawyers are paid more than 100,000 a year by taxpayers to appear in the criminal courts, and one in four make more than £200,000.”

The figures showed no such thing. What they showed was 1 in 40 made more than £200,000. They also showed about 1 in 4 made less than £20,000. That is 2.5% of the Criminal Bar being used to justify cuts to the whole legal profession, including the bottom earning 25% of the profession.

So the views I would have dealt with in this conversation are all views that have been expressed in the comments section of the Daily Mail website. I am afraid they reveal a lack of understanding of what we do and how we work. Can we change such views? Over time we can. Have we got that time before these damaging cuts wreak havoc? Most definitely not. Although we can and should continue to make our case against the cuts forcibly to the public we should not be surprised that we do not carry everyone with us.

I should say that all those comments were real ones from the readers save for one. The last one. That wildly inaccurate statistic was written in a piece by a journalist. That really is a problem. Spin from the Government that is misrepresented by the Press. No wonder the public struggle to understand.

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