A few thoughts on the “£23m extra” for legal aid

Just a few thoughts about this story on the proposed “£23m increase” in legal aid criminal defence fees, which has been making some headlines. The Ministry of Justice has loudly publicised the agreement struck with the Criminal Bar Association over legal aid rates paid to criminal defence advocates – the story was even towards the top of the Radio 4 news bulletins – so some context may help anyone not fluent in the vacillating politics of the criminal Bar (i.e. normal people).

As an opening disclaimer, nothing that follows is intended as a dig at or slight towards those who have worked exceptionally hard on behalf of the criminal Bar to negotiate with an historically untrustworthy and dishonest Ministry of Justice. They have done their best, and have secured gains. However.

The MoJ’s press release headline is “The government will spend an additional £23 million on fees for criminal defence advocates”. This sounds like a big figure, and the MoJ want the public to think it’s a big figure, legal aid fat cats and all that. So let’s put it in context.

The Advocates Graduated Fee Scheme, which pays defence advocates in legal aid cases, has been cut relentlessly over recent years. As has the overall criminal legal aid budget. As has the overall legal aid budget. As has the overall MoJ budget. Approx 40% across the board.

Criminal legal aid has been cut in real terms by £340m since 2011/12. That has been achieved partially by cutting fees paid to advocates (AGFS), part by cutting fees paid to litigators (solicitors) (LGFS), part by restricting availability of legal aid to those accused of crimes.

To cut a long story of cuts very short, the latest wheeze by the MoJ was to introduce a new scheme of AGFS earlier this year. Its effect was to cut the fees in some complex cases by up to 80% (see this open letter). The Bar took action in April and refused to accept new defence cases under this scheme. This is because already poorly-paid work, particularly for the most junior practitioners, was simply unviable. We’re talking £3-an-hour unviable in some cases. The MoJ insisted the new scheme was “cost neutral”, just moving money around. This was untrue. It was a cut of £9m.

The MoJ persuaded the criminal Bar by a Brexit-like margin (51.5% to 48.5%) to vote to go back to work on the promise of £15m extra  being injected into the scheme by October 2018. The MoJ did not keep its promise. Firstly, the agreement had been that this £15m would be added to the AGFS spend for 2016/17. When it published its proposals, the MoJ disingenuously added the £15m to the figures for 2017/18, which were significantly lower (due to falling caseloads), and this had the effect of only increasing the 2016/17 spend by £8.6m. Secondly, it was not done in time for October as promised. So in November we’re still working on the new (terrible) rates.

There have since been further negotiations between the Bar and the MoJ, in an effort to undo at least some of the damage. The upshot is this “additional £23m”, which in fact simply represents the £15m which we were originally promised. (£23m is the figure you get if you use the 2017/18 figures.) And it’s worth noting that all these figures include VAT at 20%, which we are required to charge and pay to the taxman. So a good sixth of that figure is going straight back to the Treasury.

But in any case, what do these abstract figures mean? Not much. For a start, it’s based on modelling. So the increase only amounts to this figure if the workload in the courts remains broadly the same. It won’t, because fewer cases are being charged and brought to court, to save money. Without seeing the figures in the boxes (the details have not yet been published), it is impossible to properly assess how far this extra money will go, but to give context, the total spend on AGFS in 2016/17 was around £227m. So an added £15m is very small beer. It will probably help smooth some of the roughest edges in the scheme, but doesn’t touch the sides of the cuts over the past decade. Legal aid rates remain artificially low.

Junior criminal barristers will still be covering all-day hearings for senior colleagues and taking home less than £40 for the privilege. We will still have trials that we’ve spent days preparing randomly refixed by the court for dates we can’t do, and will be paid £0. We will still be paid not a penny to read through thousands of pages of disclosure – the vital material that could hold the key to saving an innocent person from years in prison. Our median take-home pay will still be a modest £27k. The most junior will still take home under £8k.

HOWEVER, here’s the point. It’s not actually about us. We choose this career and go into it with our eyes open. There’s a far bigger picture, which we must not lose sight of.

Much as what we get paid matters to us (and to society – you ain’t gonna have much of a lawyer prosecuting your burglar or defending you against a false allegation if they’re billing £5 an hour), it’s a tiny piece of that picture. The whole justice system needs investment.

The justice budget has been cut by 31% – by £2.9 BILLION – since 2010, with a further 9% cut (£800million) to take effect by 2020. The effects are those I, any many others, highlight every day. They are why I wrote the book. The justice system is broken.

The police have no resources to catch criminals. The CPS don’t have resources to prosecute, or to comply with disclosure to protect the innocent. The courts that haven’t been closed are crumbling, leaking wrecks. Victims, witnesses and defendants face chronic delays and errors.

Some defendants are excluded entirely from legal aid, forced to self-represent or pay privately. If acquitted, the government will not pay back their legal fees in full, leaving them destitute.

Prisons are too horrific to put into words, although I try here:

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So while the MoJ may congratulate itself, make no mistake – this is not a solution. Not even close. £15m for legal aid when you’ve sacrificed £4bn, demolished the court & prison estate and excluded the most vulnerable from accessing justice, is not the end. It’s barely the start.

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Legally Blonde: The Live Tweet

In the final (for now) instalment in my relentless flogging of pop culture, Friday night was spent Live-Tweeting the legal cinematic classic, Legally Blonde. If you want to find out how it went, click on the Tweets below.

 

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Love In The First Degree: Analysing the legal misconceptions of Bananarama

This weekend’s Twitter thread, which has received a surprisingly warm reception (even from Bananarama themselves), is as below. It is important, it struck me as I sat stationary on a snow-stranded train, that we always hold (girl) power to account and challenge legal myths wherever they arise, however difficult that may be.

🎵And the judge and the jury, they all put the blame on me

They wouldn’t go for my story, they wouldn’t hear my plea…

Only you can set me free, coz I’m guilty, guilty as a girl can be

Come on baby, can’t you see, I stand accuuuused of love in the first degree🎵

[THREAD]

There are many legal inaccuracies and errors that Bananarama fall into here. I think it’s important that we address them.

 

Firstly, Bananarama erroneously assume that the judge AND the jury are judging the merits of the defence. This is simply not true. Judges in Crown Courts, even Courts of Love, are judges of law alone. The verdict is for the jury.

 

The ONLY way this would stand up to scrutiny is if the judge had ruled, as a matter of law, that a particular defence was not available, and directed the jury in such terms. Absent further detail, we cannot assume that this happened.

 

Secondly, the existence of a jury indicates that there is a contested trial to determine guilt. HOWEVER…

 

…Bananarama confess – openly – that they are not only guilty, but guilty as a girl can be (by which they are presumably accepting a degree of culpability placing them at the top of the range of the highest category on the relevant Sentencing Guideline).

 

In such circumstances, it is nonsensical for them to express surprise or complaint at the jury rejecting their “plea” (by which they presumably mean defence). They are to blame for admitting guilt in front of the jury and for wasting scarce court resources on a needless trial.

 

If Bananarama simply wanted to contest the *factual basis* of their admitted guilt, then they should be having a trial of issue (“Newton hearing”) in front of a judge alone. Their advocate should have advised them as such. This is plainly negligent.

 

In any event, there are live criminal proceedings and Bananarama are imploring the key witness (“only you can set me free”) to intervene to prevent the consequences of their admitted criminality. Bananarama are shamelessly attempting to pervert the course of justice.

 

In these circumstances, it is frankly unsurprising that, at the start of the song, Bananarama are “locked in a prison cell”. The judge was clearly right to withhold bail given the substantial grounds for believing that Bananarama would interfere with witnesses if granted bail.

 

In practical terms, Bananarama would be properly advised to spend less time imploring the complainant to help them, and seek advice on the merits of an appeal against conviction. That they haven’t is almost certainly down to savage legal aid cuts depriving them of representation.

 

My view, for what it’s worth, is that such an appeal would have merit. Because, and I have reread ALL my law books to make sure I’m right on this, there is NO criminal offence in England and Wales of “love in the first degree.” This is simply a common tabloid misconception.

 

That the CPS charged this case at all is a damning indictment on its chronic lack of resources and obsession with targets above all else. Far better, I would advise, to concede the appeal and bring new charges for the perverting the course of justice (above).

 

In conclusion, nothing about this Bananarama trial sits right with me. While we must be calm and not jump to conclusions without knowing the full facts, I am deeply troubled that something has gone badly wrong. Or that Bananarama’s legal research is not what it should be.

[ENDS]

 

Next Friday (assuming the trains are still not moving): “Was Meatloaf being incited to commit a criminal offence, and therefore well within his rights to refuse to do *that*?”

Why did a Britain First supporter who wanted to “kill a Muslim” and drove his van at a pedestrian only receive 33 weeks’ imprisonment?

This is a little later than planned, but recently I’ve been responding to a number of queries about legal issues on Twitter through threads, and it struck me that it might be of some use (possibly) to put them up here, for anyone interested who doesn’t catch them live.

Here, from a fortnight ago, I look at why a Britain First supporter who drove his van at the owner of an Indian restaurant, having earlier expressed a desire to “kill a Muslim”, received 33 weeks’ imprisonment upon his conviction.

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Marek Zakrocki