What the Public need to know about "fat cat lawyers " and the reality of the legal aid cuts to criminal representation
I decided to become a Solicitor after undertaking work experience with a firm of Solicitors when I was 17. I observed a case before the Royal Courts of Justice and saw a convicted man released from a lengthy prison sentence. I was amazed to see the difference that the man’s legal team had made. I saw how overjoyed and grateful the man was that justice had prevailed thanks to his lawyers’ actions and perseverance.
Everything about a career in the law excited me. I completed my degree and swiftly followed it up with the Law conversion and Legal Practice Course. The courses cost thousands of pounds on top of my University fees and took a further 2 years to complete, but I did not care, it was not about money. I was determined to succeed and nothing would stand in my way. I secured a training contract at a Leeds firm and qualified in 2008.
I decided that a career in Criminal Law was for me and realised that without more experience I would find it hard to get the role I wanted. I was given the opportunity to voluntarily work at a firm and undertake the Criminal Litigation Accreditation, on the basis that I funded the cost of the qualification.
My first post-qualified role was a steep learning curve. I was quickly given conduct of serious, complicated and interesting cases and would sit with clients for hours taking their instructions, preparing their cases and representing them in Court. I bought myself my first car – a rusty old, green corsa. I was expected to travel a lot – one day I could be on the Isle of Sheppey, the next I could be in North West Wales, I would need to attend the police station at a moment’s notice at any hour of the day. I was being paid significantly less than a newly qualified teacher, something that junior criminal defence Solicitors have come to accept as part of the role. I was working long days, weekends and nights and given a maximum of 4 weeks’ holiday a year. But I did not care about that. Nothing was too much trouble and I loved every second of it.
It has long been an unwritten rule for all criminal defence lawyers that we will show goodwill wherever possible, by going over-and-above our contractual obligations, prioritising our work above all else to ensure that matters are dealt with efficiently and effectively. I recall a day when my husband bravely attended our first antenatal class alone because I was busy in a two day attendance at the police station - not something I was contracted to do, but something I chose to do out of the responsibility I felt to assist my vulnerable client.
A question I often get faced with is, “how can you represent clients when they have done such horrible things?”. Firstly, it is not for a lawyer to decide whether or not a client is guilty – the Courts will make that decision. A defendant’s Counsel is their voice. In a democratic society, we cannot simply lock up suspects because an allegation is made. Everyone should have the right to question what has been said about them if they do not agree with it. Equally, it would not be right for an accused person to be able to cross examine a witness directly. If a defendant was denied the right to representation and convicted of a crime, he/she may claim that they did not understand the process and that they did not have a fair trial. If a defendant has robust representation throughout the Court process, they will have little scope to complain of an “unsafe conviction” if convicted, meaning that all concerned have a sense of closure at the conclusion of a case.
One of my career highlights came in 2012, when I represented a man that had been accused of a historic sexual offence. He had a young family and supportive wife. His was in turmoil - outraged, confused and desperate over what had been alleged. I spent hours with him, taking his account, considering the evidence and ensuring that everything was thoroughly prepared. This enabled trial Counsel to be fully briefed and gave her the information required to confront the Complainant over her account. The complainant eventually admitted during her evidence that she had lied. In the absence of the hours of preparation, important instructions would have been missed and my client could have been convicted and received up to 20 years imprisonment. The amount the firm was eventually remunerated on the matter equated to less than £25 per hour for my time, in some cases it is much less than this. In contrast, firms are remunerated at a rate £150-£250 per hour for a Solicitor of a similar experience to me, carrying out work for private matters.
The cuts have perhaps been justified by exploiting the public’s perception of “fat cat lawyers” that are paid too much out of the public purse. It is time that this perception was put right. I, like my colleagues, have chosen this career path for our passion, interest and commitment to justice. It is not about the money – if it was, we would have given up on the profession a long time ago. A criminal defence Solicitor is likely to earn less than a junior Prison Officer or newly appointed Police Officer.
In March 2014 the government introduced cuts to fees of 8.75% across the board for all criminal matters. On the 1st of July 2015 a second round of cuts at the same rate was introduced with the threat of further cuts in the future. There has not been an increase to legal aid fees for over 20 years. The majority of firms have now taken the decision to decline any new legally aided work from the 1st July 2015 as it does not make economic sense to carry out work at the new rates. Firms were already struggling to break even on legally aided matters prior to the second round of cuts. It is outrageous to expect a firm to lose money in return for running a firm and employing a Solicitor to represent a client. It is of grave concern that the few firms that have chosen to continue to take on cases since the 1st July 2015, will struggle to competently represent clients. The cuts could mean that these firms are so financially compromised that they will need to cut corners which would undoubtedly lead to an increase in miscarriages of justice.
As a result of Solicitors declining work at the new rates, police stations and Court cells across the country are at capacity, defendants are being bailed without being dealt with, helpless people are trying to represent themselves and the valuable time of the Court is being wasted due to delays and adjournments. The Justice System is currently in a state of chaos. This has all occurred within 2 weeks of the introduction of the cuts and the situation stands to deteriorate over the coming weeks and months.
Justice is not and should never be about money. However, the cuts will impact so much that it has made it impossible for us to carry on working for justice. My colleagues and I have been left feeling deflated and disillusioned - not for ourselves, but for the thousands of people that we have dedicated our time and careers fighting so hard to protect.
The people that will be most affected by the cuts to legal aid are the most vulnerable and weakest in our society. Those that are fortunate to be in a position to pay for their representation will be able to fund thorough preparation of their cases and employ experienced, senior advocates. Those that would need to rely on legal aid are in great danger of not being properly represented because of the derisory remuneration that a representative is provided with. How can it be right that people with lower financial means will stand a much higher chance of conviction? There should never be a price on justice.