I shall be brief and to the point. I had not planned on blogging today. But then came along the BBC. With this:

Now, this kind of “story” I’ve come to expect from certain news-peddlers. The Mail, the Telegraph, the Mirror, The Sun – they kneel, supine and obedient, mouths agape and greedily trembling with the anticipation of swallowing whatever foul excretion the Ministry of Justice cocks pump in, which they will then dutifully spit out on demand like mendacious pez dispensers.

But the BBC? Come on, chaps. Where the flip are your news values? Just what is the story here? If it’s the sheer horror of bad people “getting” taxpayer’s money to spend on defence lawyers, then you’re missing an awful lot of stories. 600,000 per year or so, in fact. But assuming the BBC hasn’t gone all Chris Grayling on us and developed a reflexive aversion to the concept of legal aid – of people prosecuted by the state being entitled to competent legal representation – then their “angle” must be the tried n tested bait of, “Isn’t it terrible how much money these bad people are entitled to”. Like £400,000 was wired to their bank accounts for them to wantonly fritter away on Marlboros and Special Brew and Sky TV and quadbikes and all those other things that this government assumes welfare benefits really goes on.

Well if that is your angle, Daily BBC, then you’re going to need to provide some context for this story to have any meaning. In particular, I’d suggest you need to be prepared to answer these:

1) How many hours did the defence solicitors spend preparing the case? I’m talking hours at the police station, hours of conferences with the client taking instructions, hours taking witness statements, instructing experts, drafting defence statements and proofs of evidence, attending on the barrister at court, photocopying, reading the (no doubt for a murder of this size) considerable volume of papers.

2) How much money did the defence solicitors spend preparing the case? That nice juicy figure is gross. Out of that, the firm will have to pay staff wages, holiday pay, pensions, sick pay, building rent, professional indemnity insurance, admin such as photocopying and printing (as the CPS no longer serve physical paper cases), experts’ fees, travel to court, travel to prison. If you’re not including those, it’s akin to saying that a builder who charges you £500 for materials and £100 labour is creaming in £600 an hour.

3) How long did the barrister spend preparing the case? How many barristers were there? How many hundreds of hours went into preparing this murder? How many pages of evidence were there? Hundreds? Thousands? How many boxes of unpaginated disclosure did the barrister(s) have to trawl through?

4) How long was the trial, and how many hours each day was the barrister (a) in court; and (b) preparing in the evening for the following day? How many complex legal applications required lengthy skeleton argument and extensive legal research?

5) Are you aware that the figure of £400k includes VAT? How does that affect your scoop?

6) That all worked out, what was the actual net hourly rate of these professionals, who, let us not forget, will be among the very finest in their field?

7) Is that net figure too high? How does it compare to other professions? To other areas of law? To medicine? To accountants? Architects? Fluffers? Zookeepers?

8) Returning to your headline, if £400,000 is too much for society to spend on defending the most serious offence in English law, let’s have a comparison – how much was spent by the police on investigating, and by the CPS on their caseworkers, in-house lawyers and instructed Q.C.? Was it more or less than £400,000?

9) What figure would you say is reasonable, BBC, for a civilised society to spend on safeguarding the rights of two people accused of a crime carrying mandatory life imprisonment? If not £400,000, then what? Give us a figure. Show us how and why it should be less.

I do not have the answers to the above. I wasn’t in the case and haven’t done the research. But I don’t have to, because I’m not the one presenting this out-of-context figure as somehow imparting a greater meaning. If the BBC considers itself a serious bastion of fair and impartial journalism, it needs to do better than recycling MoJ press releases aimed at no higher cause than fomenting a public association between “legal aid”, “fat cat lawyers” and “undeserving child murderers”.

Shame on you, BBC.

thesecretbarrister Bad Law, Lawsplaining, Legal Aid , , ,

11 Replies

  1. Something stuck out in that article, from the first time I read it: “The killers of Bristol teenager Becky Watts were granted more than £400,000 in legal aid, a Freedom of Information request has revealed.”

    It’s the passive voice: “a Freedom of Information request has revealed”. So who submitted that FoI request? Was it the BBC, and if so, why didn’t they say so? If not, why isn’t that discussed in the article; isn’t the “Who” as important as the “What”?

    A little bit of searching online, and it became clear that the article has been picked up by a number of papers: The Guardian, The Independent, The Telegraph, ITV, etc…https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=foi+becky+watts

    Some of those articles use more precise wording:
    – “New figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the Press Association” [1]
    – “Figures obtained by the Press Association show the couple were granted a total of £402,250.01” [2]
    – “Figures obtained by the Press Association show the couple were granted a total of £402,250.01” [3]

    The point still stands, it’s a sensationalist inflammatory article.

    And the BBC, The Guardian, et al should do better than to reprint this syndicated click-bait detritus for the sake of page impressions.

    [1] http://www.itv.com/news/west/2016-03-03/becky-watts-killers-granted-more-than-70-000-in-legal-aid/
    [2] http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/mar/03/killers-of-becky-watts-granted-400000-in-legal-aid
    [3] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/becky-watts-killers-nathan-matthews-shauna-hoare-400000-legal-aid-a6908986.html

  2. 1. So the nasty newspapers credited their source, the lovely BBC rarely does.
    2. There’s a serious and open question here as to how much criminal trials, even for serious offences, should cost. Suggesting that the defendants “got” the money is misleading. But is £400,000 for the defence – and commensurate costs for prosecution – justified? Should we accept the logic that justice is priceless so any level of expenditure is fine?

  3. The BBC should have compared this crime to other crimes – Serial Killer or a Child Molester.

  4. …remembering that a good defence is ESSENTIAL in ensuring justice. Otherwise we end up paying a great deal more for repeated appeals, or even compensation after a false conviction. The £400k cost must be seen in the context of the cost of incarceration and the relatively unusual nature of this case.

    1. In Canada the cost of incarceration, in a maximum security institution, is at least $150,000 per year, I have no doubt that the cost of similar incarceration over in G.B is probably higher then that. So multiply that by how many years in prison and it will make the 400K figure sound very cheap.

  5. A reasonable question is being asked by the BBC and other news organisations: how much should taxpayers be forced to spend on defending criminals? The criminal defence fraternity seems to instinctively take the side of its clients, which is commendable, but not outwith consideration of the wider economic and political context. Robert Kaye, commenting above, is correct when he asked:

    “There’s a serious and open question here as to how much criminal trials, even for serious offences, should cost. Suggesting that the defendants “got” the money is misleading. But is £400,000 for the defence – and commensurate costs for prosecution – justified? Should we accept the logic that justice is priceless so any level of expenditure is fine?”

    Personally, I would be content with legally-aided defendants being confined to a single solicitor-advocate, on say, £50,000 per year. Allowing for additional actual costs of 50%, that would impose a maximum possible cost of £75,000 for a year’s work. Would some people be wrongly convicted? Yes. Am I still comfortable with that? Yes. The alternative is the cloud cuckoo land in which a mythical concept of ‘criminal justice at any price’ is, de facto, allowed to deprive the NHS, schools, the police, and social services of money which their clients need so that they too can have a just outcome.

    1. It would be fine to limit the defence to £75,000 as long as the prosecution had the same limit. But of course you’d have to accept guilty people going free as part of the cost of cut-price trials, as well as innocent people going to jail.

  6. The above comment shows a misunderstanding of the reality of a legal aid law firm. Firstly a solicitor-advocate working in legal aid would be fortunate to earn £50,000. The range is more accurately £25,000 to £35,000. As a generalisation, a solicitor needs to bring into the firm 3 times his salary in order to cover rent, professional insurance and other staff costs (reception, secretary, accounts). In a complex murder trial such as this, the additional costs are likely to include experts such as a pathologist, a psychiatrist, a forensic expert…. all of whose costs will be included in the figure quoted as ‘to the solicitor’ and all of whom will be charging higher rates than the solicitor can dream of. And then of course add VAT on top! Oh yes, and the figure would be split between 2 firms as there was a conflict of interest between the 2 defendants. The comment of ‘representing criminals’ also betrays an assumption that everyone represented is guilty.
    Finally did anyone notice that at least one of the ‘killers’ was found not guilty of the main charge against her – murder. She was found guilty of manslaughter.
    Headline figures such as these are peddled to further the government’s agenda that legal aid rates are too high whereas they are in fact dropping year on year. Legal aid rates have been cut repeatedly since the 1990s without any account taken for inflation and increased expenditure on everything else. As a result our criminal justice system is now at breaking point.
    Would you be so comfortable if it was you or your child who was wrongly convicted?

  7. Thanks for a clear explanation of the system for a non-lawyer! I have always felt that our legal aid system was something to be proud of, and although to the outsider at times it seems one can get as much justice as one can afford, the system gives those without access to the necessary large amounts of money the chance to access legal support. I am happy for my taxes to be spent on this, and as a doctor I believe it is just a important as health care in a caring & moral society. Reading Butler’s ‘Erewhon’ is an instructive exercise in looking at these competing imperatives!
    Exactly where the balance lies, as you and commenters have noted, is the challenging question!

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