‘To no one will We sell, to no one will We deny or delay, right or justice.’
Clause 40, Magna Carta
It’s been almost 800 years since the Magna Carta was first sealed by King John on the bank of the Thames in June 1215. In that time we’ve witnessed the abolition of slavery, the women’s suffrage movement and the introduction of gay marriage, as society has pushed forward to bring equality and security to all its citizens. By 2015 we should be entering an era where the money in your pocket should not determine your entitlement to basic human rights. Why is it then, that in February 2014 the Lord Chancellor announced what will amount to a 25% cut in legal aid, the service that provides a fair trial to those who cannot afford to hire a private solicitor?
As the first Lord Chancellor since the 17th century not to be a qualified lawyer, it comes as no surprise that Chris Grayling has been accused of knowing as much about the legal industry as Alexa Chung knows about the Ukraine Crisis. On Friday 7th March, legal aid lawyers marched from the Houses of Parliament to the Ministry of Justice in protest of the latest cuts. Despite being branded ‘fat cats’ by the prestigious pages of the Daily Mail, the reality facing solicitors and barristers is bleak. Being a solicitor advocate at Shentons in Winchester, my sister Chloe has been telling me how many of us will be seriously disadvantaged by these proposals…
“I became a criminal lawyer because I really feel there could be nothing worse than being convicted of a crime you didn’t commit. People constantly ask me how can I defend people who I believe are guilty and I frequently give the example of a young, black male from London who was arrested for drug dealing in Southampton. He had dealt a wrap of heroin to an undercover officer and there was a DNA match to saliva on the wrap. The client told me he was innocent and had never even been to Southampton. I advised him of the strength of the evidence against him but in the end I put forward his defence because it is not up to me to draw my own conclusions. Weeks later whilst awaiting trial he was released because the DNA samples had been mixed up and he was in fact innocent. If someone tells me they are innocent it is my duty to advance their case to the best of my ability.
In the nine years that I have done this work my perception is that people accused of criminal offences are generally those who find themselves on the margins of society, often for a myriad of reasons. A high proportion suffer from mental health problems and/or drug addiction. They frequently come from a difficult upbringing with domestic violence, sexual or physical abuse and generally very little in the way of support or discipline. They characteristically have learning disabilities and struggle to articulate themselves properly. These are often the reasons they have failed to secure employment and have turned to crime for financial gain. Similarly they may be the reason that they struggle to deal with situations when they are angry and they commit acts of violence.
All of these problems mean that when I come to meet a client there is often so much that they do not say. Sometimes they are in denial about the full extent of their problems, or they simply find them too difficult to talk about. It is therefore my job to look into these issues and to help them as best that I can. I had a client last year who presented as perfectly ‘normal’ in the sense that he was able to give me instructions and indicate that he had committed an offence of arson. However when I dug deeper with him it became apparent that he did not know why he had committed the offence and certain answers that he gave to my questions deeply concerned me. He was a man with several convictions and he had moved about having a different solicitor each time. I adjourned the case for the preparation of psychiatric reports and we discovered that he had suffered a brain injury when he was young and that he had also developed a significant mental disorder. He was eventually sentenced to mental health treatment in a hospital and the psychiatrist said to me that she could not believe it had taken this long for him to get the treatment he needed.
Hopefully you will agree then that it is vital for lawyers to have the time to consider a case fully. Sadly this is already in jeopardy due to legal aid firms already functioning on an average profit margin of 5%, we are under considerable pressure to take on as many cases as physically possible to make enough money to continue. Mr Grayling is now implementing a 25% cut and its pretty much impossible for anyone to stay in business at all. There will simply not be the money for people to look through the pages and pages of unused material for example, that can often hold the key to a defendant’s acquittal. ‘Unused material’ is the evidence obtained by the police during an investigation that does not assist the Prosecution and therefore is not going to be ‘used.’ It is disclosed to the Defence for them to analyse it but even with the current system they are not paid separately for doing this and therefore if there are hundreds or even thousands of pages the fee is the same as if there were none. Currently conscientious solicitors and barristers spend considerable time looking through this material. With a big company like Tesco running things and a 25% reduction in the fee, my very great fear is that this will simply not happen and if someone does look at it, it is likely to be an unqualified individual who will miss the significance of what they are reading.
On Friday we hoped that we might draw some public support, but people find it hard to sympathise or care about a group of people who they believe are well paid despite the fact that the average criminal solicitor earns less than an NHS nurse. We were joined by Maxine Peake from Silk and Dave Rowntree from Blur, the latter of which is a criminal legal aid lawyer. He pointed out that the greatest celebration of the Magna Carta next year would be to continue to honour the liberties and principles enshrined within it.”