Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Justice For Sale

I know you're all good, law-abiding folk out there, but imagine this scenario.

You were assaulted in the street. In response, you turned around and gave your assailant a good hiding, at which point the police have turned up and arrested you despite your pleas that it was self defence.

You already have a solicitor that has dealt with your family for years on other non-criminal matters, knows you well and is suitably qualified and experienced to present the case for your defence in court.

However, you can't afford to pay him due to your present financial circumstances, and will need to claim legal aid.

Your solicitor is happy to do the work for legal aid rates. You're a repeat customer, he's got every incentive to work as hard as he possibly can for you in the knowledge you'll come back next time you want some legal work doing.

As you're claiming legal aid however, you can't use your trusted, respected family solicitor. Instead, you have to go through a subsidiary of a national haulage firm, which has won the contract to allocate clients to legal aid solicitors.

The one they allocate you to is 30 miles away in the nearest big city. You incur costs and spend a lot of time travelling back and forth to meetings. They don't know you, have no idea about your previous character or any interest in you being a repeat customer.

Not only that, but whatever your plea or the outcome of any court case, they get paid exactly the same amount. So if they can persuade you to plead guilty and thereby cut out the need for a trial, they have a bigger profit margin on the job.

All in all, a pretty unsatisfactory state of affairs wouldn't you agree? Well that's the future that awaits if the Ministry of Justice gets its way and introduces PCT (Price Competitive Tendering) for criminal legal aid work.

Legal firms will be forced to bid for a small number of legal aid contracts in their area. Any that are unsuccessful or choose not to bid will not be permitted to undertake legal criminal aid work. This is expected to reduce the number of firms available to do this kind of work from around 1,600 to as few as 400 for the whole of the country.

It will create wastelands in areas where there are no successful bidders such as rural locations. For speakers of minority languages it could leave them with no legal aid solicitor who actually speaks their language within a reasonable travelling distance.

Smaller firms will find themselves pushed into a "merge or die" scenario if they want to continue delivering criminal legal aid work. Stobart Solicitors, a subsidiary of the Stobart haulage group has already expressed an interest in bidding. No doubt the usual suspects when it comes to public sector contracting rounds - G4S, for example - will be submitting expensively prepared, professional bids from their experienced in-house contracting teams.

Are these the types of organisations you want representing you in court?

Those firms that are successful will be faced with no guarantees of work. What work they do get will be at a reduced fee per case. A successful bid could well end up crippling some firms. What happens then in terms of providing representation in that locality?

The Ministry of Justice would have us believe that the current UK legal aid system is bloated and is not providing "value for money". It cites as its evidence "lawyers earning hundreds of thousands of pounds from two or three cases", when in fact the average criminal defence solicitor in the UK earns between £20k and £45k per year and is often required to work weekends, nights and bank holidays for no extra reward.

Make no bones about it, if the Ministry of Justice manages to get these proposals through the consultation stage and implemented - there will be no phased roll out, no pilot schemes to evaluate its success, just straight from one system to the other - then it won't just stop at criminal legal aid work. It has already said as much. The civil and family courts will be next in line, with the potential for this system to be rolled out in other areas. How do you fancy having your GP chosen for you by a regional panel which has no interest in what is right or convenient for your welfare?

Much as I am loathe to quote her, Margaret Thatcher - never one to promote the public sector or the private - once said that ‘any country or Government which wants to proceed towards tyranny starts to undermine legal rights and undermine the law’.

Putting out justice to the highest bidder is the first step in that process.

If you haven't done so already, please let the Ministry of Justice know how you feel about the proposed changes and the potential removal of your right to select your legal advocate. Sign the petition now at:


Monday, May 06, 2013

Life's Ups and Downs

The debate has started again in rugby league circles about the merits of automatic promotion and relegation to Super League. The end to the football season, with all its last minute drama, delight and despair has no doubt stirred its believers into action.

There is no debate that do-or-die games, with something hinging on the outcome for both sides, create drama and draw crowds. The last one I can remember of the pre-franchise era in rugby league pitched local neighbours Wakefield and Castleford against each other, in a winner-takes-all showdown full of excitement in front of a large attendance.

There's one significant difference in the outcomes of promotion and relegation between rugby league and many other professional sports however, which presents a fly in the ointment to the automatic P&R brigade.

In football, if a team is relegated from the Premier League it drops down to the Championship. Clubs in the Championship are run in much the same way. They receive substantial - albeit smaller - television revenues. All their staff, both on field and off, are still full time and well paid. The rules don't differ in terms of how much they can spend on wages or how many overseas players they have.

The relegated or promoted clubs can essentially carry on doing business in the same way they had in the previous season. None of this applies to rugby league.

Revenues in the Championship are tiny in comparison to Super League. In most cases well below the level that is needed to fund a full time squad. Hence the reason that most of the teams at that level are part time. So any club that comes down from Super League finds itself having to make major changes on and off the field in the way it is structured.

Similarly, any club stepping up from the Championship to Super League needs to find the investment to recruit a large number of new players, revamp its marketing and commercial side and make the transition from a part time to a full time competition. Assuming they don't get to know that they are promoted until October and that the season starts again in February, that means four months to entirely change the nature of their business.

The current franchising system is not perfect. It will not provide a cure to the kind of poor, short-term management that plagues many clubs both inside and outside Super League. That's an issue that those responsible for running the clubs need to get their heads around.

What it will do however - and has already done - is encourage outside investment into clubs from owners who can be sure that for the next three years their major income streams are guaranteed. It will also ensure that they can invest in their infrastructure - stadiums, youth structures, marketing - safe in the knowledge that doing so will increase their chances of staying in Super League and not be jeopardised by a sudden slump in playing form.

On-field competition in sport is its lifeblood. It's the reason it exists. Yet despite that, sport is also a business. If it neglects the solid structures it needs to survive, what happens on the field becomes the least of its worries.

For rugby league clubs to survive, they need that solidity and certainty - not the knife edge existence that promotion and relegation brings.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Getting Britain Working

Iain Duncan Smith is poised to announce a radical new plan to reduce both the benefits bill and the NHS waiting lists in one.

The Work and Pensions Secretary's new initiative will see the long-term unemployed being forced to consent to their organs being used for transplants, or risk having their benefits reduced.

Sources within Whitehall have expressed their concern at the amount of time patients are spending on waiting lists for organ transplants and the amount their ongoing care in the meantime costs the NHS.

A DWP spokesman told us, "It seems ludicrous that at a time when Britain needs everyone to be striving rather than skiving, that there are perfectly functioning organs being wasted in the bodies of those whose prime ambition is to be awake in time for Jeremy Kyle."

"It makes sense for those organs to be removed and put to work in the bodies of decent, hard-working British people so they can provide for their decent, hard-working British families."

"This will result in significant savings from the benefits budget as a result of the donors no longer being eligible - mainly due to being dead - while also reducing the amount of time recipients have to wait for organs."

"Those who refuse to have their organs redistributed in this way will face having their benefits reduced. While we appreciate this may lead to them dying of malnutrition or hypothermia, clearly this will have the unintended side effect of freeing up their organs earlier than we would otherwise have expected."

"In order to avoid placing undue strain on the NHS by increasing the number of transplants it performs, we will of course be contracting these operations out to private sector partners."

Response within Westminster to the leaked proposals has been mixed, with Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg describing them as "really not very nice at all", while UKIP's Nigel Farage has expressed concern that the organs may be taken by Bulgarians and Romanians who come into the country simply for the purpose of obtaining kidneys they can sell at a profit back home.