Tag Archives: Legal Aid

Vote of no confidence

Some may say that today was the day we ate our own tail. They’ll say the solicitors profession should be united. That we should stand together against a government hell bent on undermining justice. Well, yes and no for me. The vote of no confidence in the Law Society’s strategy to oppose criminal legal aid reforms really has to be looked at in a broader context. We within the profession, and those few who have stuck it out and continued practising in both criminal and civil Legal Aid areas until 2013 in particular, have watched the Law Society losing the war over the past 15 years or so. It wins battles but it has steadily lost the war. I put together a series of links back in April which illustrate this. Added to that is ill will over personal injury reforms and alternative business structures.

228 solicitors voted for a motion of no confidence today. I support their cause, even if I’m not entirely convinced the vote was the best way forward and I should mention again that the Law Society Council is under no obligation to do anything as a result of the vote. Indeed, shortly before it a Law Society spokesman said so, pointing out that even a full postal vote of all Law Society members would be non-binding. The Council decides what happens next, despite the outcome of the vote. The Society’s initial statement responding to the vote was notable for it’s blandness. It’s been followed by a further release “reaffirm[ing] its vow to continue opposing cuts”.

The Law Society represents us (clients have the Solicitors Regulatory Authority, of course) so we expect the Law Society to actually do so, within reason (from time to time I see solicitors suggesting things in the Gazette which would undermine the profession’s ethical obligations to justice and clients). Increasingly, it seems we need it to be more like a trade union. From my perspective there are two main failings in how the Law Society has gone about it over the years.

The first is that it’s failed to tackle the PR problems. This breaks down in two ways: the acceptance of the fact that public opinion determines public policy and how you deliver the message. Lawyers aren’t really that great at this stuff. Some of us prefer to tinker in our ivory towers, desperately clinging to legal practice and trying to avoid being businesses. We tut over advertising campaigns like we’re still in the 19th century. We think it’s enough to be right, without needing to sell the argument that makes us right. Maybe there’s even a hint of snobbery in not wanting to need public support. The Law Society puts its head above the parapet. Of course it does. But it doesn’t do it often enough or effectively enough in the face of the media and even politicians calling us greedy self-serving fat cats. Senior Law Society Council members are capable of sincere and affecting rhetoric. When she was president, Linda Lee brought tears to my eyes at a function (I wasn’t even drinking) and got a standing ovation. Believe me, she had it in her to affect non-lawyers but the Law Society seems to struggle with the concept that it has to take the fight to the public at all.

The second question is whether direct action is the right thing. This has been on the cards for years now and, despite the immediate impact on justice if criminal lawyers go on strike, I’m all for it (just as long as the PR surrounding it is handled properly). It’s the only option left. Shut justice down to prove the point.

Time after time the Law Society has been the Judas goat leading Legal Aid practitioners. The vote of no confidence didn’t come out of the blue. Legal Aid practitioners have trusted the Law Society and the nearer they’re led to the abattoir, the less faith they have. They’ve asked for better PR in the past. They’ve called for strike action in the past. The past 15 years have demonstrated that Legal Aid practitioners shouldn’t have confidence in the Law Society. But that’s also why I don’t agree that heads should necessarily roll. This isn’t about the people on the Council today. It’s about long term strategy. The Law Society hasn’t been listening to its members. If it’s members have to kick it somewhere tender to get its attention, so be it. That doesn’t signal that we’re a divided profession on the principle. It shows that some people in the profession have more of a stomach for a fight than the Law Society. What will be far more detrimental is if the Society ends up speaking against strike action when it comes. I don’t expect resignations. I don’t even want them but I do hope the embarrassment of a vote of no confidence being passed will make the Council listen to the desperation of the members who attended and voted and look at its strategy again.

Labour Conference: Please sir, will you save Legal Aid?

The reason I’m on the fence between Labour and the Greens at the moment can largely be summed up in one word: justice. Labour left me feeling pretty bitter about it during its 13 years in office. The Labour government was hardly filled with paragons of virtue in this arena and its centre leaning (and beyond) policies were there from day one. You might not have seen me share my Criminology lecturer’s anecdote, which he told us shortly after the 1997 election. He saw Jack Straw at a function and Straw said ‘the trouble with “you lefties” is’, without irony. My lecturer was one of the most respected criminologists in the world but he was written off as a lefty by the newly minted Labour Home Secretary. If their criminal justice policies were bad, things were to get worse once they got onto anti-terror legislation. The various Home Secretaries and Lord Chancellors/Justice Ministers who had held office under New Labour have been swept away since then but I’m still left wondering how far Labour’s really moved from the centre ground over the past three years. Labour isn’t under pressure to talk about some of the issues which worry me at the moment though so Yvette Cooper was able to focus primarily on three areas which have been in the limelight and could be expected to resonate with the public in her speech :-
– police numbers;
– it’s just one fuck up after another on Theresa May’s watch; and
– immigration.
As with Social Security, there were good points in Cooper’s speech (eg. improving sex education in schools, which is important for numerous reasons). I was also far more thrilled than anyone ought to be at her mentioning the connection between rising shoplifting and rising poverty. Even though many issues weren’t mentioned at all in Cooper’s speech, I had the gut feeling reading it that criminal policy remains an area where playing on people’s fears and prejudices remains the easiest course for politicians seeking office though. The tone of her speech felt familiar and that sentiment came across in Sadiq Khan’s speech too. Khan’s speech wasn’t without some serious high points. It demonstrated a willingness to consider hard solutions instead of tough ones, searching for the root causes of crime in poverty and recognising that many mentally ill people who commit crimes are being let down by the State:-
“We need a Justice Secretary who’ll persuade the Education Secretary that cutting Sure Start or family intervention projects is a false economy. One who’ll work with health colleagues to end the scandal of those with mental health problems languishing in our prisons.”
Still, the language of fear was there. I know there’s no room in a Conference speech for nuanced explanations of policy but the words which are chosen speak volumes. A phrase like “reckless gambles with public safety” to describe the proposed privatisation of the Probation Service makes me slightly queasy because it points to a party which still feels the politics of fear are good enough, or that they have no alternative way of reaching the public. Yvette Cooper ended her speech saying we need hope. I agree but hope doesn’t spring from the language of fear. Similarly, it may be popular to do so but I don’t believe it’s necessary to use the language of retribution to oppose the idea of plea bargaining (as Khan did).

Khan defended the European Convention of Human Rights in his speech but that’s hardly a bravo moment. The fact that things have got so bad that the Tories think they can get away with withdrawing from the European Convention of Human Rights just goes to show how screwed up our country’s attitudes to human rights have become. It’s also hard to ignore the fact that earlier this year Labour abstained on the retrospective amendment to the workfare scheme on the basis that the country couldn’t afford to compensate people who’d lost out under the procedurally flawed scheme. Another instance of Labour delivering the message we can have all the human rights we like as long as they don’t inconvenience the Government of the day?

Moving on: Legal Aid. If you want to know more about Legal Aid under New Labour, I put a long series of links covering most of their time in office together in Legal Aid: the New Labour years after a more general brief history of Legal Aid in Call me a cynic but. You don’t need to read all of the links to see why lawyers might be suspicious of One Nation Labour. Willie Bach led a heartening, bitterly long fight against LASPO in the House of Lords and remains committed to Legal Aid but when he tried to get a vote of delegates on the protection of Legal Aid at the Conference he lost, despite Labour Commons mps having mouthed the right words on LASPO and proposals for further “reforms” in the arenas of public and criminal law this year. There was no blanket defence of Legal Aid at the Conference. It didn’t rate a mention in Miliband’s speech at all. Sadiq Khan only mentioned Legal Aid in relation to judicial review proceedings and cases involving domestic violence. We desperately need it to be preserved in those cases but it’s very much the thin edge of the wedge. It’s entirely possible, when you look at the specific examples he chose that he was just sticking to examples which he knew would elicit public sympathy but it feels like a door closing on LASPO.

The trouble with looking at a Conference is that I’m only ever going to be able to skim the surface of what’s been said because of all the fringe events. I didn’t even try in relation to social security but I did look at the coverage of a panel organised by the Legal Aid Practitioners Group on Monday, where Shadow Attorney General Emily Thornberry emphasised the importance of Legal Aid but also said:
“‘there won’t be a lot of money around’ and so the party would ‘have to be careful about what we spend our money on.'”
This was after the ballot on opposing the Government’s reforms was defeated at the weekend. So it’s business as usual for Labour then. It’s laughable that she complained that constituents were going to their mps for legal advice but couldn’t always get it because not all mps are former lawyers. Many are and, given the likelihood of many practising lawyers losing their jobs between now and 2015, I’m sure she could find some more than willing to stand in the election in return for tripling their salary and having the opportunity to provide free legal advice to their constituents.

I suppose I can at least take heart that there are former lawyers in the shadow cabinet speaking out against reforms. It’s a huge step up from people like Jack Straw muttering about opticians. Anyway, enough. Labour will do (or to a greater extent I suspect, not do) what they will do when it comes to these issues. I only hope that people like Lord Bach keep speaking out because public opinion won’t change if they don’t and only public opinion is likely to change Labour’s position on this. I’m also pretty proud of the way my profession’s handling the crisis. Not at the top: frankly the Law Society seems to have abysmal pr skills and the Bar Council had the advantage of an excellent president last year but probably isn’t any more reliable than the Law Society. We need people to see that we’re human and have strong values – too often all the public sees are the deeply embarrassing instances of individual lawyers demonstrating they’re utterly out of touch. Remember Jerry Hayes’ appearance on Question Time earlier this year? The one where he argued that rape didn’t happen if there’s no resulting conviction, dismissing the trauma of the thousands of women who’ve chosen not to report being raped. I can’t remember who the other embarrassment was that day or why but I remember tweeting that the Bar Council must be in need of a stiff drink because someone else had been shown up in the papers on the same day. And then in August we had the barrister who portrayed a child victim of a sex offence as a Lolita. I’m proud of all the individual lawyers writing blogs, responding to consultations, writing to mps, attending demonstrations and tweeting who counter negative images like these and the image of uncaring city fat cats living the high life. I’m proud that people outside the legal profession are getting to see that a lot of us truly care. It’s passionate lawyers who got over 100,000 signatures for the Save UK Justice petition. By the way, the petition closes on 10 October. If you haven’t already signed it, please do. We desperately need to demonstrate to all parties that Legal Aid has the backing of non-lawyers. It’s the only way we’ll be able to convince anyone to push back against the reforms. They haven’t and won’t just take lawyers’ livelihoods. They have and will take away your rights.

Legal Aid, the New Labour years

This one’s for @MerelyImputed, who asked me where he could read more about New Labour’s policies on Legal Aid. I know he’ll have read my previous posts on Legal Aid (The day justice died and Call me a cynic but…, although if you go back to my three part satirical short story on the Legal Services Act, Stepping up to the plate, you’ll find it crept in there too). I readily admit that much of the bitterness behind those posts is due to the fact that most people don’t seem to know or care what happened between 1999 and 2010 and/or just blamed lawyers for being “fat cats” (see Call me a cynic but… for the truth on earnings) and ambulance chasers. Like many solicitors, I feel the Law Society has never really grasped the nettle in any meaningful way. There are plenty of passionate solicitors who’re both willing and able to get their message across but the Law Society has never successfully brought this subject into the light (I even came across this article teaching lawyers how to dress for the press in 2002 in the course of collating articles and letters for this post!).

I want to give Tim an answer to his question asap so I’m not going to give a narrative of Labour’s changes here but I may come back to this. So, on to a little light reading. I did look for a detailed timeline of Legal Aid reforms I could link to while writing Call me a cynic but… but I couldn’t find one. If you’re keen enough to want to buy a book for a comprehensive review, I’d imagine your best bet is Hynes’ The Justice Gap, Whatever Happened to Legal Aid. I don’t have it but Legal Action Group books are usually a good bet.

One problem with publicising reforms has been that many have been technical and administrative and/or budgetary. This makes it difficult to give a snapshot of what has happened. There have been occasional wins, but they’ve never been major or involved a reversal of the overall trend eg the Legal Aid budget might go up to reflect increases in the number of criminal offences on the statute books without any increase in rates of pay for lawyers or the means test might increase the budget but only because the income threshold to qualify for Legal Aid is connected to benefits and they (used to) increase in line with inflation. I’ve chosen the articles below because, taken together, they seem to touch on most major issues facing Legal Aid lawyers from 2000 to 2010. By the way, yes. I freely admit that the links here are sympathetic to Legal Aid and the lawyers who do Legal Aid work. The world has quite enough Legal Aid and lawyer bashing stories in it already so I don’t feel any need to put the opposing view here and hold myself to a higher standard of reporting than the media who write those opposing stories.

Not an A grade effort for me but here’s an essay touching on some major changes.

In April 2001 the Law Society Gazette reviewed the switch from the Legal Aid Board to LSC, which helps to explain the administrative context and a month later it focused on reforms in criminal cases.

This Guardian article from 2008 expresses the rage of principled lawyers after a decade of Labour.

This 2011 article from the London Review of Books is another good one.

To my own surprise, I’ll add a Tory blog from 2010 to the list.

The Socialist Party featured this article in 2007.

The Law Society Gazette is a good weathervane if you want to know how solicitors viewed the New Labour years. Here are some of the letters it received during between 2000 and 2003 (don’t worry – the Gazette imposes a word limit. They know us well):
We need Legal Aid 3 June 2000
We must demand respect 16 June 2000
Not such a rosy view 4 August 2000
Feeling the pinch 2 Nov 2000
True Convictions 8 Jan 2001
Euro rights quiz 9 April 2001
Redistribute wealth 11 May 2001
Sad loss & contract muddle 4 April 2003
Staring into the abyss 17 April 2003
A job worth doing? 12 Sept 2003
I had a tougher time finding letters after 2004 (presumably the Gazette reorganised its layout) but do have some more for you:
Rates of decline 7 Oct 2006
Open a dialogue 12 Oct 2006
Under the bonnet 12 Oct 2006
There is also one unforgettable letter I was able to find by searching for “creme egg”, Lawyers left with egg on their faces 1 April 2010

I’ve picked out some news stories from the Gazette to show the continuing trend, from solicitors’ perspectives from 2004 to 2010:
Cash boost for DCA but Legal Aid slashed 15 July 2004
Legal Aid: £6 million boost but mps fear crisis 22 July 2004
LSC allocates more matter starts but lawyers warn on pay 19 May 2005
‘Tinkering’ Falconer rules out extra cash 14 July 2005
Solicitors off the hook 21 July 2005
Judges’ funding fears 27 April 2006
Outcry over fixed fee rates 27 July 2006
Cuts to fees for family work will ‘decimate’ practitioners 31 August 2006
Means test ‘disaster’ fears 7 Sept 2006
Labour MPs sign up to Legal Aid campaign 8 Feb 2007
Firms ditch Legal Aid contracts 22 February 2007
Ethnic minority groups act over LSC reforms 26 April 2007
Legal Aid in chaos as DSCC expands 17 Jan 2008
Minister questions Legal Aid priorities at 60th anniversary debate 1 May 2009
Provision gap in the East after Anglia law centres close 12 August 2009
Solicitors issue advice warning over child neglect cases 19 Nov 2009
Quarter of firms expected to walk away from Legal Aid in next five years 3 Dec 2009
New matter starts shortage reaching ‘crisis level’ 26 Nov 2009
Government’s £23 million Legal Aid cuts ‘affront to justice’ 21 Dec 2009
Survey reveals civil Legal Aid solicitors are ‘starved of cash’ 18 Feb 2010
Legal Aid cuts will happen ‘under any government’ 9 April 2010

If you have any other suggestions for reading on the New Labour era, let me know. I’d be happy to add to the list.

Call me a cynic but…

I got a tweet in response to The Day Justice Died saying:
“call me a cynic but Govt blocking access to the law at same time as other attacks shows lessons learned from #workfare”.
I wouldn’t call that cynical. If anything, I’d say it doesn’t go far enough. Yes, the current round of cuts is brutal. It fits neatly in with all of the other cuts and makes it considerably more difficult for people who are affected by them or by the state of the economy generally but cuts in Legal Aid are nothing new. The introduction of modern Legal Aid was one of the many post-war measures to create a fairer society (although the roots of the principle of access to justice lie in the Magna Carta). Created by statute in 1949, it sat alongside the NHS and the modern system of social security. But while the NHS is a national treasure, Legal Aid unifies people in a different way: a national punching bag. Might the imminent destruction of all of Legal Aid’s more popular siblings be what it takes to make people see its value? Like the plain, dull sibling in a Jane Austen novel; Legal Aid has been sitting, rejected and forlorn in the corner for so long that I wonder how many people ever think of it at all. The Tories didn’t sneak up out of the mist and slit Legal Aid’s throat on the 1st April. Legal Aid has been slowly starving to death for a generation and arguably stands as a lesson to its more popular siblings.

In 1945 a Parliamentary Committee included the following recommendations in its report (acknowledgement goes to Save Legal Aid, who I’m quoting heavily here):-
– Legal aid should be available in all courts and in such manner as will enable persons in need to have access to the professional help they require.
– This provision should not be limited to those who are normally classed as poor but should include a wider income group.
– Those who cannot afford to pay anything for legal aid should receive this free of cost.
– There should be a scale of contributions for those who can pay something toward costs.
– The cost of the scheme should be borne by the state, but the scheme should not be administered either as a department of state or by local authorities.
– The legal profession should be responsible for the administration of the scheme.
– Barristers and solicitors should receive adequate remuneration for their services.

As a lawyer with lefty-leaning views, that all sounds fair and sensible and when Legal Aid began in 1950 it followed those recommendations. Some people would (I confidently predict because they always do) criticise lawyers over the “adequate remuneration” recommendation. The average annual salary of a Legal Aid solicitor is £25,000 (just below the national average). The difference between the “fat cats” and mere mortals doing Legal Aid work and/or working in the high street is vast but you only ever really hear about “fat cats”. Incidentally, by way of comparison, GPs earn an average of £90,000 per year (I’m not knocking them for it but come on, it’s a massive pay differential). In 2009 Jack Straw told Legal Aid solicitors they shouldn’t expect to be paid as much as doctors and should model themselves on optician chains instead (the one time I used Boots opticians they fucked up my sight test and I had to get an independent optician to redo the test a few weeks later but, hey, this is your justice system, right?). Jobs which routinely pay more than the average salary for a Legal Aid solicitor include teaching, police, fire brigades and (according to the Law Society Gazette a couple of years back) bin men. It’s a wonder anyone offers Legal Aid services at all.

In 1950 80% of the population was entitled to Legal Aid, the amount being based on a means test. Some people had all of their costs paid but many others received a contribution. If that system was still around today, I would be able to afford legal fees. Until the 1970s most cases involving Legal Aid were criminal and family cases. In the 1970s, another period of vast economic upheaval, employment and housing claims rose. Even by 1973 though, the proportion of the population entitled to claim Legal Aid had dropped to 40%. At one time Legal Aid was even widely available for will writing. That might sound odd but anyone who has children (particularly if they’re unmarried) should have a will, even if all their possessions added together aren’t worth £100, because their children need a guardian. By 2008 29% of the population was entitled to Legal Aid. This figure rose to 36% in 2009, not because the means test changed but because of the impact of the financial crisis on claimants’ incomes. While the number of people eligible has changed over time, other efforts have long been underway to reduce the cost of Legal Aid. Labour called the 1st April a “day of shame” for the legal aid system but it made plenty of cuts and reforms of its own during its time in office (never forget this about New Labour: before we even had a chance to celebrate the fact that Michael Howard was no longer Home Secretary in 1997, Jack Straw said to my Criminology lecturer at a party, “the trouble with you lefties is”). In particular, the rates paid for Legal Aid work and the method of winning contracts to do Legal Aid work both led to reductions in the number of lawyers doing it. Legal Aid was only limping along by May 2010 and Labour would have cut it too if it had been reelected.

As of the 1st April, even people on income based benefits such as JSA are subject to stricter tests. The categories of work for which Legal Aid is now available have been slashed but are complicated by the exceptions and concessions gained through the course of a brutally long fight against the LASPO (all credit to the House of Lords who did what they could to make Lord McNally’s life a misery each time the Bill came back to them and kept fighting on the implementing regulations). All told, it’s estimated that about 600,000 will lose entitlement to Legal Aid (to put that in context, it’s estimated that the Bedroom Tax will affect 660,000 claimants). The Bar Council’s guidance on the new regime runs to 69 pages so I’m not giving you anything but a snapshot. There are other cuts and other exceptions. Matters civil Legal Aid is no longer available for include:

Family cases which don’t involve proven abuse, forced marriage or the protection of children and aren’t public law care/adoption proceedings;

Employment cases unless they’re under the Equalities Act or involve human trafficking;

Medical negligence except for babies who suffer serious neurological harm in limited cases (personal injury claims other than medical negligence were dropped years ago);

Social Security cases unless and until they’re appealed to the Upper Tribunal and above on a point of law (and only on a point of law);

Education unless the child has special needs;

Housing cases except where there is serious disrepair, the threat of eviction, the claimant is homeless or to defend Council anti-social behaviour action;

Debt except where bankruptcy or repossession proceedings are threatened;

Consumer law and contract law;

Criminal injuries compensation;

Immigration cases which aren’t actual asylum applications or where the person is detained or a victim of domestic violence or human trafficking. Applications for asylum support aren’t covered unless the person has also made claims for housing and financial support.

The rump left in addition to the exceptions above includes mental health, community care, judicial review, abuse of position or powers by a public authority, breach of Convention rights by a public authority (not all human rights cases are covered though), facilities for disabled people and equality claims. Nb “mental health” means Mental Health Act proceedings. The same rules apply to mentally ill people in areas like Social Security and Housing as apply to people who don’t suffer from mental illness. The stricter means test I mentioned above applies to all of these areas and tests relating to the prospect of success and whether alternatives to Court have been pursued remain.

Turning to the Workfare case, this case muddies the waters if you’re trying to work out what Legal Aid is now available for and why cuts were made. It was an application for judicial review (for which Legal Aid continues to be available, although the signs are that the Government wants to cut Legal Aid for public law claims too) but Cait Reilly and Jamie Wilson won their earlier appeals against the sanctions on them on the basis that there had been breaches (which were admitted by the DWP) of the Regulations anyway. Two different things were going on. They could have accepted their own individual wins at an earlier stage and walked away but they pursued the legal principle. If it had only ever been a simpler appeal against sanctions, without the opportunity to claim judicial review, it would be a different matter and Legal Aid wouldn’t be available below the Upper Tribunal under the new system. The availability of Legal Aid for judicial review (for the time being) gives a glimmer of hope in the whole mess we’re facing and lawyers with public law expertise are fighting but it’s a big picture right. Anyone run over by the juggernaut of “reforms” will find it much harder to get any kind of remedy in the meantime.

For benefit appeals without public law aspects, this is an area where the Lords seemed to have won the hugely important concession of retaining Legal Aid for appeals but what we got in the end was Legal Aid only for appeals on points of law in the Upper Tribunal and above and not for first stage appeals. Firstly, something like an appeal against a Work Capability Assessment is more likely to revolve around medical evidence and therefore wouldn’t be covered in any event. The other crucial thing is that Legal Aid won’t be available right at the start of the process of appealing a welfare decision. When I was on Incapacity Benefit my claim was wrongly reduced on a technical point of law. Fortunately for me I’d studied social security law so it was easy for me to check it out and to literally quote its own Technical Manual back at the DWP. One letter was enough to get it sorted out. It’s a complex system though and the vast majority of people could use some guidance navigating it. Having read the last couple of paragraphs, you probably agree that it takes a certain amount of time and skill just to identify whether an appeal is based on facts, a point of law or public law!

It could be said that it’s not the end of the world not to be able to get a solicitor or barrister to advise claimants directly through a law firm or chambers right at the outset. That’s what the Government wants us to accept and, in the short term, it would be true if other sources of advice such as the CAB are available but that’s a big ‘if’ because they’ve been reliant on Legal Aid too and are heavily reliant on lawyers donating time to them. Charities providing welfare advice are having a very hard time (earlier this week I tweeted a letter from Shelter published in my local paper announcing the closure of an advice centre) and it’ll get tougher as the reforms to social security take hold. It’s safe to assume they’ll be utterly swamped by people needing advice on things like the Bedroom Tax and PIP. Because it’s a highly technical statute based area of law, I’m not convinced it lends itself very well to casual volunteering by lawyers who work in other fields either (assuming we want people to get high quality advice). The Government says it’s set aside £65 million of lottery money over the next two years for legal advice centres, seemingly immune to the irony of using lottery funds to support a justice system which is a postcode lottery.

The immediate availability of early legal advice is a short term problem but the long term problem with removing Legal Aid for all early legal advice is how we gain new lawyers specialising in these areas. It will be harder for junior lawyers to get experience and (see pre-LASPO pay rates above) financially unviable for many young lawyers who need to work and need some assurance of job prospects in the long run, no matter how idealistic they are. Private work in areas like family and employment will feed new lawyers into those areas (although the number of firms offering Legal Aid services in those areas will, as it has been doing for years, continue to shrink) but what about social security law? It’s hard to imagine many will enter such an insecure area. As that happens there will be less competent lawyers available for the stages of upper appeal tribunal through to Supreme Court even though those stages are still covered by Legal Aid and, as I’ve said, people would still need free guidance through the initial appeal stages in order to get to the point where Legal Aid would kick in. The best way of salvaging something of this mess may well be for public lawyers to offer free initial advice (themselves or by donating their time to advice centres) on areas which are relevant to public law, such as social security and housing, whether the individual cases turn out to be public law cases or not, and set it off against the work they can get paid for. It shouldn’t have to be like that though. It’s a massive burden to ask them to take on and every time lawyers meekly accept lower rates of pay and agree to work for free, the Government of the day seems to wonder how much further they can be pushed, while the public via the media just declares “well of course they should work for free. It’s the least these fat cats can do.”

I’ll finish with Liberty’s summary of the wider situation, which hits the nail on the head:

“the true impact of these cuts goes much further than the likely individual injustices which will prevail. The ever-present prospect of legal intervention is the surest way of securing a society where respect for human rights, equality and due process guides the behaviour of our decision-makers. Alongside other assaults on the rule of law such as Secret Courts and worrying judicial review overhaul, legal aid upheaval risks leaving big business, Government and other members of the rich and powerful elite that bit freer to act with impunity”

To help save UK justice, please sign this petition.

The Day Justice Died

A long long time ago
I can still remember how Legal Aid used to be paid
And if lawyers had a chance
They could help some people out
And maybe they’d be happy for a while
But Parliament made us shiver
With every “reform” it delivered
Bad news in the Gazette
LawSoc couldn’t stop one more step
I can’t remember if I cried
When I read about justice denied
But something touched me deep inside
The day Legal Aid died

So bye bye
Justice denied
Drove a chevy through our levies
‘Cause they said they’re too high
And good old toffs sipping whiskey and wine
Celebrated as Legal Aid died
This’ll be the day justice dies

Do you believe a Tory gov
Or do you have faith in a High Court judge
If the media tells you to
Now do you believe in the common law
Can justice save your mortal soul
And can you represent yourself alone?
Well, I know that you’re not mad at them
‘Cause you didn’t raise an almighty din
Oblivious to our gloom
Man, you couldn’t see what you’d lose
I was a lowly teenage law student
With a pink highlighter and a statute book
But I knew I was out of luck
The day Legal Aid died

I started singing bye bye
Justice denied
Drove a chevy through our levies
‘Cause they said they’re too high
And good old toffs sipping whiskey and wine
Celebrated as Legal Aid died
This’ll be the day justice dies

Now for ten years plus we’ve been on our own
They say we’ve grown fat on the public’s woes
But then that’s how it’s always been
While McCartney sang for the bloody queen
His awful voice drowned out our screams
LASPO shattered our naive dreams
‘Cause while you all were looking down
Politicians stole Justice’s sword and crown
The courtroom was adjourned
No lawyers will return
And while Gove reviled the book of Marx
Supreme Justices met in a secret court
And we sang dirges in the dark
The day Legal Aid died

We were singing, bye bye
Justice denied
Drove a chevy through our levies
‘Cause they said they’re too high
And good old toffs sipping whiskey and wine
Celebrated as Legal Aid died
This’ll be the day justice dies

Helter skelter in a freezing winter
People lost their rights to warmth and shelter
Eight miles high and falling fast
The DWP landed foul on its ass
The lawyers took their one last chance
With May on the sidelines screaming crap
Now every win’s a sweet perfume
But the press is singing to their tune
We all got up to dance
Oh, but we never got the chance
‘Cause the lawyers tried to take the field
The politicians refused to yield
Do you recall what was revealed
The day Legal Aid died?

We started singin’ bye bye
Justice denied
Drove a chevy through our levies
‘Cause they said they’re too high
And good old toffs sipping whiskey and wine
Celebrated as Legal Aid died
This’ll be the day justice dies

Oh, and there we were all in one place
A generation lost in space
With no time left to start again
So come on, please say something, please speak out
Don’t watch these “reforms” without a sound
‘Cause silence is the devil’s only friend
Oh, and as I watched him on the stage
My hands were clenched in fists of rage
No angel born in Hell
Could break that Satan’s spell
And as the flames climbed high into the night
To light the sacrificial rite
I saw Grayling laughing with delight
The day Legal Aid died

He was singin’ bye bye
Justice denied
Drove a chevy through our levies
‘Cause they said they’re too high
And good old toffs sipping whiskey and wine
Celebrated as Legal Aid died
This’ll be the day justice dies

I met a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her for some happy news
But she just smiled and turned away
I went down to the sacred court
Where I’d heard of justice years before
But the man there said the lawyers weren’t paid
And in the streets, the children screamed
Ex lovers cried, equality a distant dream
But not a word was spoken
The church bells all were broken
And the men I admire most
Supreme Court Justices, Master of the Rolls
They caught the last train for the coast
The day Legal Aid died

And they were singin’ bye bye
Justice denied
Drove a chevy through our levies
‘Cause they said they’re too high
And good old toffs sipping whiskey and wine
Celebrated as Legal Aid died
This’ll be the day justice dies.

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Stepping Up to the Plate: an adventure of a modern lawyer Part III

I stand alone now. Waiting and more than a little afraid. I see a creature moving towards me, more rapidly than a thing of its bulk should be able to. The air is full of the sound of it squelching towards me. It truly is a horror to behold, its features shift with dizzying speed from Howard to Straw, Blunkett, Charles Clarke, Reid, Smith, Johnson, May, Ken Clarke, Grayling. Indeed, all of them at once but my mind recoils from the sight.

“You are surplus to requirements in a civilised society” it declares. “We protect the people. We keep them safe. The state serves all fairly and punishes justly. The people know this and reject your meddling.”

Somewhere, deep inside, I scream defiance but, standing in front of the monster  I cower. I suddenly feel ashamed. What if it’s true. What if people don’t want human rights and civil liberties. What if they don’t want help when the state abuses them? What if we, the lawyers, are the meddlers and not the foul beast before me. I waver, while a bitter little voice inside whispers, “what if they get the government they deserve”.

The monster continues to boom its propaganda. It speaks of being tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime, tells me that prison works, that bobbies on the beat are all we need, that ASBOs will save the nation. It talks of prison overcrowding, prison boats moored off our shores and prison closures. Terrorists against whom nothing is proven, curfews, electronic tagging, CCTV, surveillance. Binge drinking, public disorder, protests, riots. The death of family values, a compensation culture, unnecessary human rights and the fairness of legal aid cuts. It rages “only we hold the solutions”.

Suddenly there is silence. I feel something build in the air around us.

Consumerism, competition, choice, commoditisation. If you accept these things, you may live.”

“But,” I hesitate and take a breath, “but I don’t believe those things benefit clients. External investment makes us beholden to third parties who care for nothing but their own dividends. We will cease to be a profession. Standards will slip if we are forced to pile them high and sell them cheap. Eventually, only six law firms will remain and they will be despised by everyone; most of all, by their own staff. They will offer temporary cuts in prices but, once they consolidate their position, they will lose the incentive to offer reasonable rates. They will, in short, charge more than people like me would ever dare to!”

Shaking with rage, mouth dry and just a little terrified I continue. “My obligations are to the court, the rule of law and to my clients.”

I hear a whooshing in my ears, fear I might faint. When I look back at the spot where the monster stood it’s gone, replaced by something no less terrifying but considerably more reassuring. Ghosts of senior judges stand before me. Not wanting my first words to be gibberish, I hold my tongue.

“You are safe,” they say as one.

“The plate?” I manage to say.

“We’re sorry. There is no plate.”

“But, but this is an adventure. It doesn’t work like that. I defeated the monster. I should get the plate. I need it.”

“There is no plate. Stop and think for a moment. You were told to step up to the plate. Finding no meaning in that directive, you came here. You came seeking the truth, not the plate.”

“But I can’t go back empty handed. I can’t accept my working life is being directed by a meaningless management mantra.”

Collectively, they sigh. “Then we’re afraid that, even though you love Justice and Ethics there is no place for you in the modern law firm.”

Stepping Up to the Plate: an adventure of a modern lawyer Part II

Setting out on my quest again, I reach a building. It has the dismal look of a factory, yet the sign says “Bodge it & Screw ‘Em Legal Services (Pies and Pasties a speciality). I enter and move, unnoticed, through room after room of people, dully intoning, “your matter has become too complex and a solicitor must now advise you. Please note that our charges will increase exponentially.” I hurry on but can’t avoid seeing that their faces are all the same, features slightly blurry, as if they were manufactured. There is no individuality and no passion on their faces or in their voices. They are automatons processing case file after case file with no interest in their outcomes. I shudder. This could be my future if I don’t step up to the plate. A future full of procedures, monotony. A future where talent and imagination are stifled in favour of form filling. A future where clients are no longer people to have conversations with but file numbers to process. My sense of urgency increases. I must succeed in my quest! I walk on and come to a brightly lit room, lined with filing cabinets, and hear a new voice.

“Where’s your stamp?” he squeaks.

I turn and see a small creature with multicoloured neon fur, “My?”

“Stamp, your stamp that says who your parents are.”

Bemused, I can’t think of a response.

“Look,” he says, pointing to his bum, “your stamp”.

Embarrassed, I look closely, past the tufts of fur, and see it. His Certified Copy stamp, with two signatures.

“Well…I don’t have one.”

“Then how do people know where you came from. You’re nobody without your stamp!”

Somehow, I just know that all of the people I’ve seen so far in this building have stamps and that all of their stamps look the same.

“I don’t have a stamp. I come from a far off land where nobody is stamped and no person is the same as the next. I came to seek a plate to rescue my people. If I step up on it, they will be saved.”

A look of fierce concentration appears on the little creature’s face. Then, “Does your plate have a stamp,” he asks with an expression bordering on sly.

“I don’t know,” I say. “I haven’t seen the plate. Nobody can describe it for me. All I know is that I must find the plate and step up to it.”
At this, he appears to lose interest and turns away to his drawers of records.

“Excuse me,” I interrupt. “I don’t suppose the plate could be filed in your cabinets?”

He snorts. “I do not misfile anything. My cabinets are perfectly ordered. You have no stamp, you couldn’t understand.” With a snippy toss of his head, he walks away.

There is nothing more for me in this place. I walk on out of the building and come out into a dark, bleak landscape. I blink. How long was I inside? As I peer out at this strange new land, I think I see a spark of light. With hope, I stare at the point where it had been. Eventually, it comes again and I start towards it, only to be stopped in my tracks by a whispering voice.

“Justice?” I ask.

“No,” comes the soft reply, “I am Ethics, her sister. Tell me, how does she fare?”

Uncomfortable, I stare out into the dark. Eventually, I say the only thing I can.

“I’m sorry. I’m afraid she is very ill.”

“I feared as much.”

Just a wraith herself, yet there is something more substantial to Ethics than her sister. I find myself asking her how this came to be.

“My future is bound up with yours and others like you. Lawyers. I feel the same shifting currents, see the same predators but they can’t come for me or for you until my sister is sufficiently weakened. She protects us, you see.”

The sad creature I had seen could barely protect herself. Glancing at her, I realise Ethics knows that. A light sparks again. Before I can take another step, Ethics’ voice grows harsher.

“Stop,” she cries, a rasping, ragged shout. “You mustn’t.”

“But if there are people, they may know where the plate I seek can be found.”

“No longer people,” she looks on the lights with pity, “no longer.”

“Then who…”

“They sought the plate before you. When they came to this place they were caught by the monster of the bog, a terrible creature formed from the souls of home secretaries and justice secretaries who willingly gave them up in return for the power they sought. It is a young creature, only two decades old, but it grows ever stronger as each successive government builds on the actions of the last.”

I feel a shiver of revulsion pass through me as I think of the souls that had gone to create and sustain such a creature. I watch as another light glows and slowly dies away. Turning back to Ethics, I ask with trepidation, “how did they die?”

My question is met with silence.

“Please,” I try again.

“The monster will speak to you. It will lure you with promises of safety and security. For many that is enough. It pacifies them because they so want to believe. Remember from whence the monster came. It will be convincing. You will want to believe but you must not. Remember me. Remember Justice. Perhaps you can do it.”

Then, she is gone.

Part III