By Andrew Worthley, Barrister & Lecturer, City Law School
On the 7th March 2014 the legal profession plans to stage a mass walk out of court to protest the government’s proposed further cuts to legal aid. This will be the first time in its history that the Criminal Bar has withdrawn its labour for a full day, following the historic half day of protest on the 6th January earlier this year. The action is motivated by opposition to the drastic reduction of legal funding pursued by the justice secretary Chris Grayling, the first non-legally qualified Lord Chancellor of modern times.
Legal Aid in England and Wales began with the passing of the Legal Aid and Advice Act in 1949 as one of the pillars of the new Welfare State created by Atlee’s post-war government. Since then, the cost and availability of legal aid for the public has ebbed and flowed with various governmental adjustments. However, despite the fact that criminal legal aid expenditure has already decreased over the last decade by 12 per cent in real terms, the current Government recently passed the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) in an effort to slash the annual legal aid budget by a further £220 million. It is described by Lord Bach as “outrageous legislation that will harm the disabled, poor and vulnerable, and those least able to defend themselves”. It follows the already extensive cutting of legal aid in the Family Courts which has led to the disbanding of two high profile sets of barristers’ chambers.
The proposed reforms are predominantly ideological, designed to reduce government spending on a Legal Aid budget that has already dipped below £2 billion. The policy is in marked contrast to the ring fencing of the NHS’s budget which now stands at over £100 billion per year or the £141 billion cost of bank bailouts. In his introduction to the Legal Aid Agency’s inaugural Business Plan, Chris Grayling states that “legal aid will no longer be available where legal help is not absolutely necessary”. How one defines this absolutism of necessity is a matter for debate though. Bodies such as the Criminal Bar Association and the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association are united in their view that these changes are detrimental for the public, for the legal profession and for justice as a whole.
As a practising common-law barrister, I have prosecuted and defended my fair share of cases both in the Magistrates’ and Crown Court. I also have first-hand experience of how difficult it is to act in cases with an unrepresented party, whether in criminal, family or civil proceedings. In fact, my last three cases have all involved unrepresented opponents, a trend that I can only see escalating in the coming years. As a lecturer who teaches law graduates on the Bar Professional Training Course, I now also feel obliged to prepare my students for encounter with litigants in person and to equip them with the skills to tackle the many gritty difficulties that invariably arise with engaging lay people representing themselves in court. Last year I was involved in setting up a pro bono Family Law Advice Scheme at Willesden County Court (staffed by law students) to help plug the gaps already left by the drastic legal aid cuts. The Bar Council has even created its own guide for representing yourself in court. The repercussions of these cuts are obvious and vast.
Whilst I appreciate that there are limitations to such anecdotal evidence, my direct understanding of the role and great value of counsel still fuels my decision to side with my ‘striking’ comrades this week. Put aside for one moment the misleading figures used by the government to justify the cuts (for example its use of gross turnover including VAT to represent a barrister’s ‘earnings’ when typically take-home pay will be around half that sum) or the fact that many barristers at the junior bar are barely netting themselves £20,000 per year. Put aside also the idea that corporate ‘bottom-line’ analysis is an adequate ideology for appraising the administration of justice. That ethos has been critiqued elsewhere and has been found wanting.
Instead, consider this. Consider that the role of a lawyer- solicitor or barrister- goes far beyond the courtroom. Justice is not limited to an hourly rate or a brief fee. Good advice from properly qualified professionals not only ensures the smooth running of the court system, but also assists in bringing neutral and calm long-term assistance to the lives of often vulnerable people who are routinely experiencing the most traumatic experience of their lives. A cheap trial is a false economy. The relatively small amount of money that is paid to a lawyer at the point of need is far outweighed by the savings in society when considering the wider cost of family breakdown, reoffending and criminal sentencing. This walk out is happening because lawyers who take on legally aided cases care about the public’s access to justice. Unless you happen to be in court on Friday, the walk out is unlikely to directly affect you this week. But without the legal profession taking this sort of drastic action, these cuts certainly will affect you in the future. The fight for fair access to justice is a fight for us all.