Saturday 8 June 2013

Legal Aid Reforms - making 'One law for the rich' official government policy.

It's not about him.

Yesterday I was on both The Now Show and my high horse, talking about Legal Aid reforms. It will be repeated on BBC Radio 4 at 12.30 today, and after that it will be available on iplayer here for a week, and on the Friday Night Comedy podcast.
Here is a transcript of the piece, including a couple of extra bits that didn't make the edit.

Look, I know the government have to make cuts. I wish they weren’t quite so relentlessly targeted at the poorest and most vulnerable members of society; and it would be nice if while enacting them certain ministers could try to look a little less obviously like they’re having the time of their lives, but I get they have to happen somewhere, and it’s na├»ve to object to them all.

So, when you hear this week that the government are making cuts to legal aid without going through parliament, and lawyers and judges are protesting them, there’s a bit of a temptation to go… do you know, I might sit this one out. I mean, it sounds really complicated, and quite boring, and, hey, at least they’re sticking it to the lawyers! We all hate lawyers, don’t we, for some reason. Bloody lawyers. With their wigs, and their… laws. Boo.

And sure enough, these reforms certainly do hurt lawyers, albeit mainly high street solicitors and legal aid firms, which even if you do go along with the ‘all lawyers are blood-sucking vampires’ line is like Van Helsing starting off by going after Count Duckula. But it turns out the other people the reforms really hurt are- well I never- the poorest and most vulnerable members of society. Wow, the government have really a bee in their bonnet about those guys, don’t they? It’s like they’re their nemesis or something…

Ah, the poorest and most vulnerable members of society, we meet again. But this time… the advantage is mine! And indeed it was last time, and every time. Anyway, brace yourself, here comes a kicking!

And the nature of this particular kicking is this:

First, Legal Aid will have an eligibility threshold of thirty seven and a half thousand pounds. To be fair, that doesn’t seem like the worst idea in the world. And I can be confident about that, because right there next to it, as if deliberately placed for purposes of comparison, are two of the worst ideas in the world. One. Defendants will no longer have the right to choose their own lawyer. Two. Legal Aid contracts will be awarded, on the basis of price competitive tender, ie who’s cheapest, to private companies. Like Tesco and Eddie Stobart. You know, the lorry guy. Though I’m sure he’s also an excellent lawyer.

So, instead of you picking a solicitor on the basis of how well you think they’ll represent you, the new plan is that the government will choose one for you, on the basis of how cheap they are. And they will be very cheap indeed – a minimum of 17.5% below current rates, but of course with competitive tendering, it’s all about how low can you go… the floor’s the limit! You might almost wonder whether this could affect the quality of the representation in any way at all. But the government assure us it will not, and of course they’re right. We all know from our own lives that the cheaper you go, the more the quality stays exactly the same. But just out of curiosity, how do they intend to ensure quality? Well, Chris Grayling, Minister for Justice and dispenser of none, has given a clear and simple answer- he doesn’t know. Not yet. That’s one of the things they’ll work out now they’ve had the consultation. But they’ve worked out what they want to do, and precisely how much money they know it’ll save, somehow – that’s the important thing, surely? They can fill in the boring ‘how the hell will it work’ stuff later.

And hey, at least now you won't have to worry about choosing a solicitor, or be able to. No, even though everywhere else the government is obsessed with getting us to choose - choose our doctor, our school, our hospital - when it comes to poor people who’ve been arrested, suddenly Daddy knows best. Never mind if you don’t trust the solicitor you’ve been given, or if you have a mental illness your regular solicitor understands, or if you’re an ex serving soldier, hoping to use one of the firms which exist now – but won’t for much longer – that specialise in your circumstances. No, whatever your situation, you’ll be just be given some bloke from Eddie Stobart Lawyers the government thinks is best, and like it. And by ‘best’, I literally mean ‘cheapest’. Sir Anthony Hooper, a former court of appeal judge, put the ex-soldier example to Tory MP Bob Neill on the Today Programme. Mr Neill responded:

"Well, that relates to a tiny minority of cases…"

Oh, no Bob! No! That’s not the argument I want to hear you make. I want to hear how these plans won’t result in people being denied a fair trial, not how there won’t be all that many of them, so hey ho.  To be fair, Mr Neill eventually went say he thought such a case would be ‘picked up’. He didn’t explain how, or by whom. Roving bands of soldier detectors? The benevolent hand of God? Who knows. He just sort of thought it would probably all be alright. And anyway, he had more pressing concerns.  He went on to say:

"I don’t actually think the public reckons it should be paying for repeat offenders going back to their regular solicitors."

Yeah, well, he’s right. I only want to pay for solicitors for the innocent ones. Is there a way I can do that? An opt out box on my tax form or something?

That is what these changes absolutely reek of – the sense of, well, they’ve been arrested, and they’re too poor to pay a lawyer... they probably did it. Or if they didn’t do that, they probably did something. Wouldn’t be in court otherwise. Stands to reason, dunnit?

Particularly if you compound your mistake by wilfully being foreign. Another nasty little amendment is that legal aid will now only be available if you’re not only legally resident in Britain, but have lived here for at least twelve months. And if you haven’t, or you have but can’t prove it, because for instance you’ve fled from your abusive husband’s house, then no domestic abuse trial for you, my funny foreign friend. Should have thought of that before you decided to be not from round here.

So far, so depressing. But here’s the part that for me lifts it out from merely misguided and mean to absolutely ridiculous, and a bit evil.  The bargain basement Eddie Stobart legal aid lawyers will be paid a flat fee, regardless of results, and best of all, regardless of whether the client pleads Guilty, which is quick and cheap, or Not Guilty, which is not. Yes. Chris Grayling has actually created a system where privately run legal aid firms – legal aid firms – have a direct financial incentive to persuade their clients to plead guilty. Whilst simultaneously being under enormous pressure to slash costs to the bone in order to put in a tender low enough to keep the contract.

Meanwhile, the career crims who annoy Mr Neill so much tend to trust that 'regular solicitor' of theirs, and take their advice if they suggest they’d be better off pleading guilty. But they’re certainly not going to take that advice from Eddie McTesco in his My First Lawyer costume, so they’ll start pleading Not Guilty to everything.

So well done, Chris Grayling, you’ve pulled off the double. Innocent people encouraged to plead Guilty; guilty people to plead Not Guilty. What a merry madcap world of misrule you have created, Mr Grayling, you absolute tit.

This reform will surely lead to a certain number of innocent people going to prison because they’re scared and vulnerable, and their solicitor, with one eye on the meter, advises them they’ll get a shorter sentence that way. How large does that number have to be before it’s not worth the savings?

So, if you think this might, after all, not be the one to sit out, there is an e-petition on the Government’s website called Save UK Justice. It’s on 80,000 signatures; if it gets to 100,000 there is a chance that this radical and malignant change to the nature of the British justice system will actually get to be discussed in, of all places, parliament. Thank you.


The Ministry of Justice's outline of their plans
Law Gazette interview with Chris Grayling 
Today Programme interview with Sir Anthony Hooper and Bob Neill MP 
Interesting blog on the subject 
The petition for this to be debated in the House of Commons