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:


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