It Could Be You

Introduction

A quick game for you :

  • The police do not always get it 100% right.
  • The Crown Prosecution Service does not always act with
    wisdom and common sense.
  • All lawyers are
    fat-cats, who milk the extremely generous legal aid
    system.

Only two of those statements are
correct. The last one is what the current government
would like you to believe is correct,
in order that it may decimate the criminal justice system without
you so much as murmuring.

What is this
about?

This post is about the Government’s
current consultation on ‘reforming’ legal aid.
The proposal is to introduce Price Competitive Tendering (PCT)
(also known as Best Value Tendering (BVT)).

As you know, there is a lot of
cost-cutting happening in Government at the moment. Efforts are
being made to save money where ever possible and the legal
profession is certainly no exception.

What is legal
aid?

Legal aid is basically state-funded
representation. Where a person needs legal advice and
representation, the state sets aside a pot of money to pay the
bills. Not all areas of law are eligible for legal aid however. We
will, as you would expect, focus purely on crime.

What is the current
situation?

At the moment, legal aid is
currently available to anyone that is arrested and charged with a
criminal offence that is heard in the Crown Court. This means that you can go to any solicitors firm
with a legal aid contract who will represent you (an overview can be
found here
). Depending on your earnings, you may have to
make a contribution (that will be capped) which will be returned to
you if you win.

What are the Government
planning?

In short, a “one size fits all, pile
‘em high” legal aid system. The aim is to reduce the fees by at
least 20%.

Currently, there are about 1,600
firms doing criminal work. Some are large, covering huge areas of
the country, some are small, providing a more niche service.
Currently, every firm is assessed as to whether they provide a
proper service and, if they do, they are given a
contract.

50% of a
firms work will be ‘own client’, i.e., repeat business. If they do
not give a proper service, they won’t get people coming back to
them and they won’t be able to survive financially. Market forces,
it’s as simple as that.

Under the new plans, you will have
no say in which lawyer you get. The government, (the same
government that is prosecuting you as the CPS), will tell you which
lawyer you’re getting. If you have a regular lawyer, or someone who
comes highly recommended, well, tough. Client choice is out of the
window.

Also, the
fees paid to lawyers are being ‘harmonised’. What that means is
that, for almost all cases, the amount that the solicitors are paid
will be fixed, regardless of how much or how little work is
involved.

There are
many problems with what the government is planning, but we’ll just
be looking at these two.

Who will be eligible for
legal aid under the new proposals?

If you have a disposable income of over £36,500, there will
be no legal aid for you, you will to pay privately. This is whether
you’re caught with a spliff or caught up in a pub fight which ends
up in a trial that lasts weeks. Paying for those lawyers privately
won’t be cheap and, even if the jury believe you are innocent, you
won’t get your money back (other than at the legal aid rates which will be far less than you’ve forked out) Yes, that’s right, you’ll have to pay
for the privilege of a prosecution against you even if you are
found innocent. A tax on your innocence, if you like.

What will the effect
be?

The
aim is that the small firms are pushed out (they say it is
‘inefficient’ to deal with many small firms) and big companies take
over – so look forward to Tesco Law, Stobart Barristers (yes, the
trucking company) and G4S (the same G4S that stuffed up the
security at the olympics).

Even if you’re eligible, there
remains the question of what sort of service will you get. How will
you know that the lawyer you’ve been given is any good? Under the
proposed scheme, you might strike lucky, and get someone who stayed
in the game through duty and a love of the job.

Or, you might end up with the short
straw – someone who works at the legal equivalent of a sausage
factory, who excels turning around the files on his/her desk
quickly while maximising profit. Sure, that file might be your
life, but to the sausage factory lawyer, you’re a bit of grist in
the mill of meeting a target. The proposed system has a lack of
quality built into it, it’s evolution in reverse, the worst lawyers
survive.

Then there
is the incentive for ‘persuading’ you to pleading guilty.

So, you’re
innocent, and you want a lawyer who will fight your corner for you?
Ask yourself this – which is more
work:

  1. flicking through
    the papers on the train on the way to court and telling you to
    plead guilty or,

  2. preparing a case
    for a trial – speaking to you on several occasions, tracking down
    your witnesses, speaking to them and making sure that they come to
    court, chasing down the police and prosecution to give over all the
    material they have, which will often involve going to Court to
    force them two or three times, going through all of the witness
    statements with a fine toothcomb, looking for that one point that
    may ‘crack’ the case and then being in Court for the first two days
    of the trial?

It’s a no
brainer. Under the new scheme your solicitor (who prepares the
case) and advocate (who goes to court and presents your case to the
jury) will get paid
exactly the
same
in both
those scenarios above.

Even if you
withstand the pressure of ‘persuasion’ and insist on having a
trial, do you think that the sausage factory lawyer will prepare a
case that effectively he/she is not getting paid for as thoroughly
as you would hope? Don’t count on it.

So it is about
money?

We
are not saying that any lawyer is going to set out to do a bad job
or deliberately put money over service, but actions have
consequences if you took 30% off the NHS budget tomorrow then, with
the best will in the world, you can’t expect the same level of
service. Individual doctors and nurses will still go on doing the
best they can but no-one would believe that the care that they got
would be the same as before.

This isn’t a case of lawyers
‘doing you over’ if they are paid badly. The problem is that there
are competing interests. When a firm, because of the 20% (minimum)
cut in fees, has to perform as much work as it possibly can in
order to stay afloat, and the fees are the same for a long trial or
a quick guilty plea, then there is a conflict. One might question
whether when faced with a decision which has an impact upon the
financial health of their firm, a Tesco Law lawyer can truly be
independent. You might be lucky, but do you want to take that risk?

Why should I be
bothered?

You may not feel too sorry for
lawyers, or you may think that this won’t affect you, but you’d be
wrong. Anyone can be the subject of a false allegation or even in
the heat of the moment just do something the law declares is
wrong.

This isn’t
about fee cuts to lawyers. Although criminal lawyers do a get a raw
deal in the press in relation to the perception of how much money
they earn and how they ‘milk’ the legal aid system, these concerns
are about quality.

One day, you might need a legal aid
lawyer, and even if you are fortunate enough to qualify for legal
aid, there is no guarantee that the lawyer will be acting in your
best interests alone. They may well just have an eye on the clock
and their quarterly targets.

What can I do about
it?

If
you’re not happy about it, sign the petition to force a debate in the House
of Commons about it
.

A campaign group, No To PCT, has
been set up. You can find them on twitter and facebook. Also, you can respond to the
consultation on
an easy online survey
.

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This entry was posted in In the news on by .

About Dan Bunting

I'm a lawyer who works for myself. Legal geek, maths freak, general dullard and jack of all trades. Here’s a few views on law and occasional musings on life. Usual caveats about not relying on anything I say etc applies.

7 thoughts on “It Could Be You

  1. Pingback: It Could Be You | Consultation Resources | Scoo...

  2. Pingback: Changes to legal aid amount to a ‘tax on your innocence’ | Hynd's Blog

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  5. Pingback: Kallakis and Williams – Prosecutors appeal prison sentences | UK Criminal Law Blog

  6. Pingback: UK Criminal Law Blog

  7. Pingback: Deyka Hassan – (Yet) Another Tweeting Prosecution | UK Criminal Law Blog

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