It is hard to focus on domestic politics when almost overwhelmed with compassion for the tragic victims of terrorist atrocities. But, of course, that is exactly what the deluded extremists want – for us to become paralysed by their evil crimes. With some hesitation – one does not wish to exploit the suffering of the victims and their families – I do wish to link these appalling events to our own turmoil in our criminal justice system.
Our democracy, free press and above all our nation’s commitment to a fair trial are among the most important aspects of our society that separates us from those who would use barbarism to assail our citizens at home or abroad. The right to a fair trial is one shining example of civilisation that the UK gave the world. We extend that right even to those who offend our values. That is why our society will survive and why their medieval death cult will ultimately fail.
We must be careful not to fall into the trap of curtailing liberty here in response to terror to such an extent that we erode those basic values that make our society the shining example of freedom. But secondly we must be careful to uphold access to justice so that our criminal justice system does not become perceived as the place where only the rich can obtain justice through adequate legal representation. We lose that reputation for fairness and then we lose far more than the billions of overseas earnings that our courts attracts. We also lose our moral high ground over.
That is why it is important that solicitors and barristers individually are deciding to make a stand against the assault upon justice that the cuts to legal aid clearly represent. As the Criminal Law Solicitors Association chairman Bill Waddington says ‘the cuts are between 43% and 59%, an average of 52.7%’ – i.e. a total 17.5% fee cut in two instalments (the second coming in July 1); together with massive cuts to police station fees; plus further cuts from January 2016 to the Crown Court litigator fees. We cannot sustain work at these reduced rates. We cannot properly fulfill our duty to our clients and the court based on the remuneration now on offer. We are not prepared to compromise the service to our clients, the standards required to provide effective representation and access to justice.
Many of us chose to do legal aided work out of a sense of social commitment. Some of us came from legal specialist areas where we had previously earned far more but put our sense of vocation before our instinct to earn more money doing more profitable work. It was not sainthood we craved but a stimulating career providing a voice for ordinary people facing state-funded police investigation and prosecution in a complex legal system.
But now area by area solicitors are now individually coming to the same conclusion that they will not work at these reduced rates from the 1st July. They are being joined by barristers who know their survival is linked to solicitors firms.
I cannot imagine for a moment that if the cuts are withdrawn, any of the larger firms suggesting that this delivery vehicle for further cuts should not be consigned to the filing cabinet marked ‘bizarre ideas not to be revived’. ‘Two Tier’ was a Ministry of Justice concept not theirs. There have been other ideas put forward with an emphasis upon quality and IT capability such as needed for the Leveson reforms broadly welcomed by all. Some will cope and others will not. There are very good and efficient small and medium firms that will survive and poor big firms that will not survive the Leveson process and efficiency drive if the MOJ impose the necessary criteria to contract and duty schemes plus terms and conditions to make Leveson work.
To those firms understandably hesitant about this refusal to work I understand completely. But you know in your hearts that these cuts will kill financially anyway so delay in confronting that reality is self-delusion and short-termism. The MOJ only understand active resistance.
Time to wake up
To those counsel and chambers who have not yet worked out that the symbiotic nature of our mutual relationship is under terminal threat, you had better wake up now before it is too late. If your senior leaders believe that the bar is likely to benefit long term from some ‘understanding’ with the MOJ in response to failure to act against the cuts, then I am afraid that you will have to by-pass them. They are also delusional and guilty of short term opportunism. Reach out to your local firms in your area and commit to the struggle alongside them if you want them to remain in play.
To the public and defendants who will be affected, we are deeply sorry. This might not appear much of a consolation, but we are thinking of those clients in the future who will need a vibrant and viable legal aid profession in the future.