For this month’s Counsel Magazine, I have written a letter to my younger pupil-self, offering some words of advice that I wish I’d been given when starting life at the Criminal Bar.
The piece can be read here.
For this month’s Counsel Magazine, I have written a letter to my younger pupil-self, offering some words of advice that I wish I’d been given when starting life at the Criminal Bar.
The piece can be read here.
Yesterday morning, newly-appointed Justice Secretary Robert Buckland told Radio 4’s Today programme of his pleasure that the Prime Minister is taking an interest in the criminal justice system. And certainly, after three years of wilful abandonment under Theresa May, I would in principle gladly welcome some Downing Street-level political attention on the ruinous state of our criminal courts.
When this attention is coupled with more money for the criminal justice system, this sounds very much like the sort of thing those of us working within have been crying out for. So surely we should all join hands with Mr Buckland and celebrate that in Boris Johnson we finally have a leader taking criminal justice seriously?
Don’t believe a word of it. The entire project is a con.
Starting with the “new money”. Mr Johnson has announced that 20,000 new police officers will be recruited over the next three years. This is vital, certainly, but falls far short of what is required, given that that figure barely replaces the number of officers cut since 2010. Meanwhile, not only is crime increasing, but investigations are becoming ever-more complex, with digital evidence sucking resources and quadrupling the effort that would have been required a decade ago.
There’s £85m for the Crown Prosecution Service, which sounds like a healthy sum, until you realise that it’s a fixed payment over two years, and that the CPS budget for 2018/19 was a quarter of a billion pounds less in real terms than in 2009/10. The CPS has lost a quarter of its staff and a third of its lawyers since 2010. Two tranches of £42.5m will not begin to fix the problems that plague prosecutions up and down the country.
There’s a promise of 10,000 new prison places, when the previous promise of 10,000 places in 2015 fell short by 6,000, and another 9,000 places alone are required simply to address the present, longstanding overcrowding. There is £100m for technology to aid prison security, but no mention at all of the extra prison staff needed to safely manage the new offenders, given that even after a recruitment drive in 2017, numbers are 15 per cent down since 2010. There has been a huge drain of experience since 2010, as the most experienced officers were among the first to go when the government decided to slash prison staff by over a quarter, at a time when the prison population has climbed.
But the problem extends far beyond inadequate promises to redress chronic underfunding. The propaganda accompanying these announcements betrays not only the Prime Minister’s trademark opportunism and dearth of intellectual rigour but the sticky, putrid tar clogging the heart of the Johnson Crime Agenda.
Announcing his plans in a series of weekend puffs in tame newspapers, Boris Johnson declared, “Left wingers will howl. But it’s time to make criminals afraid – not the public.” Declaring his mission to ensure that criminals “get the sentence they deserve,” Johnson continued a theme begun in his Telegraph columns on the campaign trail, when he railed against “early release” from prison and inadequate prison sentences being passed. The solution to our criminal woes, the subtext screams, is to lock up more people for longer.
And let’s make no mistake, punishment is a legitimate and important part of criminal sentencing. It is one of the five purposes of sentencing listed in statute, alongside the reduction of crime (including by deterrence), reform and rehabilitation, protection of the public and making reparations to victims. Few if anybody involved in criminal justice would disagree with the notion that people who commit crime should be punished in a way that reflects their culpability and the harm they have caused, and that for some people, notably the most serious violent offenders, lengthy prison sentences are inevitable.
However, the notion that longer prison sentences by themselves make any of us any safer is a fantasy. The notion in particular that knife crime will be solved if we simply lock up young men for years on end is a hoax. The public may well be protected from that particular individual for the duration of their incarceration, but the idea underpinning this rotten philosophy – that longer sentences have a deterrent effect on crime – has been shown to be bogus. What does act as a deterrent is not severity of sentence, but certainty. The likelihood of being caught and dealt with swiftly, in other words.
But crime reduction and prevention is not achieved solely by deterrence. Rehabilitation is a vital part of protecting the public. This is why, when dealing with complex, multi-causal offending intractably rooted in social and cultural problems, the courts may take the view that more can be done to protect the public by keeping a young man on the cusp of custody out of the prison warehouse estate, and offering focussed intervention in the community. Sending someone to prison usually means ripping them away from all and any stabilising factors they may have. They lose their job, their social housing and their relationship, and exit prison with no support network other than the new friends they’ve made inside. This is why the evidence suggests that reoffending rates are lower when offenders are kept in the community.
But the evidence is of no concern to the Prime Minister. This is why he is forced into infantile ad hominems as a pre-emptive rebuttal against the people who have read and studied the evidence, and might be minded to offer some as a counter to his claims that our system is soft.
We already have the highest incarceration rate in Western Europe. Prison sentences have on average got longer year-on-year. We have more prisoners detained on indefinite and life sentences than all the other countries in the Council of Europe.
The notion that our courts routinely hand out “soft sentences” is simply not true. When we do see “soft justice” stories in the headlines, they will either be an aberration, usually corrected on appeal, or they will be the product of inaccurate or dishonest reporting, removing context or omitting facts.
Which brings us to Johnson’s public statements. Because at the centre of his musings on criminal justice is a rich stuffing of bullshit. He has lied and lied and lied. He lied when he claimed that “a convicted rapist out on early release” had raped again (the man in question was neither a convicted rapist nor out on early release). He lied when he suggested that the notion of allowing some prisoners to be released on temporary licence was “criminally stupid” (the government’s own evidence shows that reintegrating prisoners into the community in this way cuts reoffending). When he told the Mail this weekend that there are “thousands of “super prolifics” – criminals with more than 50 convictions to their name – who are being spared jail altogether”, he did not tell you that one of the reasons they were spared jail might be that they were being sentenced for non-imprisonable offences. He is lying to you when he tells you that the solution to crime is More Police, More Prisons.
He is lying so that he can turn the volume up to 11 on his remix of “Prison Works” to ensure the oldies at the back of the conference hall can hear in the run-up to the inevitable autumn general election.
And while Mr Johnson is lying to you, the rest of the criminal justice system rots.
Courts are being closed down and sold off all over the country. Half of all magistrates’ courts have been closed, meaning that defendants, victims and witnesses are forced to travel for hours on ineffective public transport to their “local” court.
Of those courts remaining standing, many are unfit for purpose. Decaying, crumbling buildings with no working lifts, holes in the roofs, sewage leaking into public areas, no air conditioning in summer and no heating in winter. In some, the public cannot even get a glass of water.
Of the courts that remain unsold, all are now run at artificially low capacity due to Ministry of Justice restrictions on “court sitting days”. We have, in many large city Crown Courts, the farce of full-time, salaried judges being forced to sit at home taking “reading days” – their perfectly serviceable courtrooms sitting locked and empty – while trials are fixed for Summer 2020 due to an alleged “lack of court time”.
We still have the abominable system of “floating trials” and “warned lists” – where defendants, witnesses and lawyers are expected to give up days or weeks of their lives just sitting around at court on the off-chance that a courtroom suddenly becomes free to take their trial. When, inevitably, no courtroom becomes free (because the MoJ won’t pay for the sitting day, ibid), their case is adjourned for months, and the cycle begins again.
The one thing that does act as a deterrent to criminals – certainty – is being eroded by ensuring that justice is doled out literally years after the event, because the government will not pay for the courts to process cases clogging the pipeline.
Meanwhile legal aid is being stripped away from citizens, forcing them to self-represent in cases in which their liberty is on the line.
This is why I am angry. Not because I’m a “lefty” inherently resistant to Boris Johnson’s white hot public service reforms. I’m angry because as a prosecutor I am still having to sit down with crying witnesses week after week and explain that their torment is being prolonged for another six months because the government refuses to pay to keep courtrooms open. I’m angry because the Innocence Tax – the policy that forces the wrongly accused to pay privately for their legal representation and then denies them their costs, bankrupting them, when they are acquitted – is not even in the political peripheral vision. I’m angry because our Prime Minister is a man who looks at the record rates of death, violence, suicide, overcrowding and self-harm in our prisons and whose first question is, “How do we get more people in there?”. I’m angry because the notion that you “crack down on crime” by chucking a few more police officers onto the streets and shoving more and more people into our death-riven prisons is a con. It is a con to victims of crime, and it is a con to you, the public. I’m angry because we have the indignity of a dishonest, cowardly and exploitative Prime Minister fiddling with his Party’s g-spot while the criminal justice system burns.
Don’t fall for his con trick.
On 7 June 2019, the High Court brought to a halt the attempted private prosecution of Boris Johnson for misconduct in public office. Today, the full judgment has been published. There has been a lot of commentary surrounding this case, not all of it based on a firm (or even rudimentary) grasp of the facts. So breaking it down, what exactly has gone on here? Eight (likely-to-be) FAQs spring to mind.
On 29 May 2019, District Judge Coleman sitting at Westminster Magistrates’ Court granted an application by Marcus Ball and Brexit Justice Limited for a summons against Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, the proposed defendant, in respect of a contemplated private prosecution seeking to charge the aforementioned Mr Johnson with three counts of misconduct in public office, contrary to common law. On 7 June 2019, the Administrative Division of the High Court granted permission in respect of a claim by Mr Johnson for judicial review of the District Judge’s decision and quashed the granting of the summons, having found that the District Judge erred in law in her findings.
In 2016, Marcus Ball set up a crowdfunding website inviting donations to fund a private prosecution of Boris Johnson for misconduct in public office, arising out of statements made by Mr Johnson during the 2016 referendum campaign, at a time when he was Mayor of London and a Member of Parliament. The offending statements relate to the well-known “We send the EU £350 million a week, let’s fund our NHS instead” claim. The first step in a criminal prosecution is to apply for a summons, which compels an individual to appear before a magistrates’ court. The District Judge (DJ) sitting at Westminster Magistrates, having heard legal argument from lawyers for Mr Ball and Mr Johnson, granted a summons. Mr Johnson “appealed” by seeking a judicial review of the decision to grant a summons, arguing that the decision was wrong in law. The High Court agreed, and quashed the decision to grant the summons.
Quite simply, in this context no summons means no prosecution. Summonses are routinely issued against defendants in criminal prosecutions, usually with absolutely no challenge. But this being a private prosecution, opposing the granting of the summons was a way of trying to derail the prosecution at the very earliest stage (and very successfully, as it turned out).
An application for a summons will be granted by a magistrate (or a District Judge) if the magistrate is satisfied that the allegation is an offence known to law, and if the essential ingredients of the offence are prima facie (on its face) present. The court is not deciding whether a person is in fact guilty of an offence; simply whether there is, on the face of the case, evidence of its core ingredients. The court must also consider whether there are compelling reasons not to issue a summons, including – importantly for our purposes – whether the application is vexatious (which may involve the presence of an improper ulterior purpose).
In most public prosecutions, these things are not even an issue: the case will have been investigated by the police, referred to the Crown Prosecution Service and reviewed by a lawyer to check that it meets the evidential and public interest tests for charging, and the threshold for issuing a summons will obviously be met. But the issue is less clear cut in cases where the law is being used for a novel purpose. And using the law of misconduct in public office to prosecute a politician for false or misleading statements made during a political campaign is certainly novel. Hence things got a little sticky.
Misconduct in public office is a centuries-old common law offence (so developed by the courts rather than set out in legislation), which has been used to prosecute such varied allegations as MEPs claiming irregular expenses, police officers selling stories to journalists, healthcare professionals engaging in relationships with prisoners, the false statement given by a police officer in the “Plebgate” affair, and the Bishop of Gloucester entering into relationships with trainee priests.
If you think this sounds somewhat wide-ranging, you’d be right. And this – the vague and ill-defined scope of the offence – is one of the reasons that misconduct in public office is currently the subject of a consultation by the Law Commission, which is considering recommendations for how it might be reformed. Nevertheless, there has been a steady rise in the number of prosecutions for the offence, from 2 in 2005 up to 135 in 2014.
The test, as set out in a 2005 judgment of the Court of Appeal, has four key elements. Misconduct in public office arises where:
i. A public officer acting as such
ii. wilfully neglects to perform his duty and/or wilfully misconducts himself
iii. to such a degree as to amount to an abuse of the public’s trust in the office holder
i.v without reasonable excuse or justification
The argument of Mr Ball was quite simple: at the time of knowingly making plainly misleading statements, Boris Johnson was a holder of public office. There was little argument that the statements were misleading. Lying to or misleading the public amounts to an abuse of public trust in that office, hence there is, on its face, evidence to meet the ingredients of the offence. The District Judge broadly agreed.
Firstly, a word about judicial review. An application to the High Court for judicial review is not simply a rerun of the case before a different court; it is a claim that there has been an error of law in the way the judge in the court below approached the case. If the High Court feels that it would have reached a different decision to the magistrates, but is not satisfied that the magistrates were wrong in law, it will not interfere.
In this case, Boris Johnson’s arguments were twofold: firstly, the District Judge made an error of law in finding that (i) and (ii) of the ingredients were prima facie made out. That error of law meant that the judge had no power to grant a summons. Secondly, the District Judge’s finding that Mr Ball’s application was not vexatious (which if found would afford a ground for not granting a summons) was “Wednesbury unreasonable”. “Wednesbury unreasonableness” is a legal concept wearily familiar to law undergrads, but for the lay person is perhaps best summarised as “batshit cray cray”. If the High Court finds that a decision of a court was “so unreasonable that no judge properly directing itself could reasonably have reached that decision”, it can quash it.
So, taking the contested elements in turn:
While Boris Johnson undoubtedly held public office (times two), the key three words are “acting as such”. It is not enough that someone be a public official; they must be acting as such in committing the alleged misconduct. As the High Court made clear:
“It was not sufficient to say that he made the statements when in office as a MP and/or Mayor of London, and that “the public office held by Mr Johnson provides status but with that status comes influence and authority”. That does no more than conclude that he occupied an office which carried influence. This ingredient requires a finding that as he discharged the duties of the office he made the claims impugned. If, as here, he simply held the office and whilst holding it expressed a view contentious and widely challenged, the ingredient of “acting as such” is not made out.”
As for whether he had “wilfully neglected to perform his public duty or wilfully misconducted himself”, the High Court was scathing of the way in which the District Judge had approached this question. The notion of false political statements falling within the ambit of “wilful misconduct” has no precedent. The High Court observed that certain types of false statement made during election campaigns are offences, having been specified as “illegal practices” by Parliament (for instance publishing a false statement about a candidate). Parliament had not chosen to specify generally false claims about, say, statistics, as illegal practices; for the courts to extend the ambit of “misconduct in public office” to encompass such things would be a significant and far-reaching decision. The law requires that people know clearly what conduct is and isn’t criminal; common law offences like this therefore should not be enlarged by the courts “with one large leap”. None of this, the High Court found, had been given proper consideration by the District Judge.
Therefore, while the threshold for granting a summons is low compared to, say, the threshold for convicting a Defendant (where the evidence has to make the magistrates or jury sure of guilt), a magistrate is still required to conduct a rigorous analysis of the legal framework and whether there is on the face of the evidence enough to satisfy the ingredients of the offence. The District Judge had not conducted such an analysis, and her conclusions were, in the High Court’s view, wrong in law.
Boris Johnson’s lawyers argued that Mr Ball’s application was politically motivated and vexatious, and that this provided another reason as to why it was wrong in law for the District Judge to issue a summons. The District Judge’s findings on this argument left something to be desired:
“I accept the defence submission that when the applicant commenced his consideration of whether to bring a private prosecution against the proposed defendant three years ago, there may have been a political purpose to these proceedings. However the information for the summons was laid on the 28th February 2019 and that argument, in my view, is no longer pertinent.”
The apparent suggestion that a political motive conceived in 2016 arising out of the EU Referendum has dissipated now in 2019 is, with respect to the judge, a curious reading of the current political temperature. When one considers the catalogue of public statements made by Marcus Ball about the proposed prosecution between 2016 and 2019, it is troubling that the District Judge’s certainty in dismissing the presence of political motivation isn’t supported by any meaningful reasoning. The High Court described the DJ’s finding as “flawed” because of the absence of reasoning, and said that it would have quashed the decision to issue a summons on this ground alone. (Because of this, the High Court said it was unnecessary for them to go on to consider whether, as well as being flawed for lack of reasoning, the finding was also “Wednesbury unreasonable”).
No, no, no, no and no. No. Just no. And no again. No. The judgment can absolutely not be interpreted as any sort of vindication of Boris Johnson’s character. Indeed, the High Court judgment reads very much as if the judges were proceeding on the assumption that he certainly had lied, or misled, and the challenges to the District Judge’s decision by Boris Johnson’s own lawyers were not concerned with a defence of his character or conduct. Rather his case succeeded on the basis that he may well be a liar or a rotter or a charlatan, but such conduct does not of itself meet the legal criteria for misconduct in public office. So a victory, certainly. But hardly the glowing character reference his supporters might suggest.
I am pleased to host this guest post from a junior member of the criminal Bar, who argues why we should vote to accept the deal arising out of the Criminal Bar Association’s negotiations with the government.
I’m a junior criminal barrister. I’m not a member of the CBA Executive, nor associated with them. This post was drafted to help me decide how to vote; perhaps it will be useful to you too.
I am deeply concerned that we are not looking at the whole picture. There are so many other concerns intimately wrapped up in how and how much we are paid for a case; ultimately a sense that justice, despite our best and most valiant efforts, is not being done.
We must look more broadly when we consider this deal, and so I publish this anonymous piece in the hope that my colleagues will also consider all the issues.
I am deeply concerned by what we already agree upon:
Here, our paths diverge. I believe there are 6 compelling reasons to vote for this deal, right now, as a tiny, incremental, step to safeguarding the future of the Criminal Bar.
We are not united
As a profession, we do not care that the most junior are struggling. For the last 10 years, low junior fees were seen as the “price to be paid” to ensure that work was brought into chambers for the most senior. Junior juniors were expected to be grateful to be thrown scraps of work, and told never to complain if you want to rise up the ranks.
Cash flow is a raging, pulsating anxiety in the minds of all juniors. Many have aged debts of £20,000, or more, on top of student loans. Rent does not wait. Bills do not wait. Travel must be paid. Those with 20 years’ experience forget that fees are the very same amount right now, while housing costs have increased by 400%. In 1998, the average UK monthly rent was £199.75– now, it stands at £934(and £1,602 for London). Those figures are typed correctly; we, the most junior, are expected to survive on the junior wages of 20 years ago, with today’s costs. Those who continue to expect the “price to be paid” will likely find that the price is the collapse of the Criminal Bar.
Making it to 10 years’ Call does not smooth the road ahead. With fee cuts taking hold in complex trials, many juniors have diversified their practice or taken secondments to stay afloat. Did those Silks and senior juniors need to diversify to pay the mortgage? Opportunities to be a junior on a serious trial are few and far between – some who manage it must do so for free, while still paying huge rents and bills. Being a junior on a trial is essential to grow and learn; without those juniors, who will prosecute or defend the alleged criminals of the future?
What of life at the Bar? The world outside has changed; look at Google’s luxurious officesor the 32-weeks maternity pay at Accentureto recognise how seriously the rest of the world takes wellbeing. At the criminal Bar, we expect women to choose between family and career. At the criminal Bar, we expect you to be in court or in hospital.At the criminal Bar, we expect you to witness the full uncensored horror of humanity, with no counselling, therapy, or support. Would anyone in the commercial world accept this? The grinding hours? The unpredictable commutes?
Finally, we arrive at the peak of the issue. We so often work for free. So much of our time and effort is unpaid. The juniors work for free to benefit the seniors. The juniors work evenings and weekends – unpaid – to prepare cases. We cannot build a career, a justice system, or a life on thin air. Until everyone, everyone, agrees that this is unacceptable, we cannot fight this properly.
What we, the most junior, are asking for is simple:
The path lies ahead, yet untrodden
Those who path calls differently, for action – what are your goals? Your objectives? What will action result in? How much money is enough? What plans do you have to protect juniors who will inevitably struggle? How many of your solicitors have you persuaded to buy in to action?
Those who yearn for action have no business going on strike without being clear, and realistic, about what you want for your livelihood and profession. Otherwise, you will repeat the vicious circle of the past – brief action followed by swift and total capitulation. Again, the most junior will lose.
The brutal, broken reality is that we do not, right now, have the strength to fight. Our junior juniors will crack under the financial pressure and break the strike or leave entirely. Our reputation and public image will sink lower. Our chambers and colleagues are not prepared for sustained action. To make a mistake now will compel even more to leave.
Those that leave are the Bar’s future. They are the Judges that will never judge, the Silks that will never take it. They are the advocates who are not being fiercely advocated for, by those who have already made it.
I am delighted to publish this guest blogpost by Greg Powell of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association (LCCSA). There is presently a lot of discussion in the media about legal aid, and in particular the rates paid to lawyers under legal aid. This analysis is vital to understanding how we have arrived where we are, and is essential reading for anybody reporting or commenting on the dispute between criminal justice professionals and the government concerning legal aid.
1.1 In the 1970s and 80s there was a large expansion of Legal Aid which was at that time essentially an adjunct to the other work of solicitors firms, there being some 7000 suppliers, Legal Aid work sitting alongside normal commercial work like conveyancing, probate and contract.
1.2 Administered by the Law Society the hourly rates were not as high as those prevailing in the private client and commercial world but nevertheless were related to the cost of time.
1.3 The cost of time was calculated by assigning a target for chargeable hours for each fee earner, usually 1200 hours per annum, a notional salary for solicitors and partners and dividing overheads by the numbers of fee earners to find out applicable hourly rates.
1.4 Provision was made for lower hourly rates for travel and waiting, a problem that has always been apparent in legal aid work which is often not office based but court based, and in the case of crime, prison and police station based, with the consequence that large parts of chargeable hours were consumed in lower paid hourly rates. Fixed fee schemes containing ‘rolled up’ time spent travelling and waiting ‘hide’ the true costs of cases within their simplicity.
1.5 However, in terms of cost benefit it is also to be noted that the organisation of courts and the interaction of advocates and the tribunal and particularly the flow of work provided by ushers in Magistrates Courts is highly efficient; face to face interactions provide courts with good quality information upon which to base decisions.
2.1 As Legal Aid expanded the Law Society administration was unable to cope. Delay in payment became a well-known public fact and eventually the decision was made to move the administration of Legal Aid away from the Law Society into the hands of an independent Legal Aid Board. This was at inception essentially a cashier organisation but it also had within it a desire to promote and implement policy.
2.2 What had also happened is that a number of more specialist Legal Aid suppliers had come into being whose main purpose was to provide Legal Aid services in the community, usually both civil and crime covering the full range of civil, family law, welfare benefits, housing, mental health and immigration. In essence a numerous and independent “legally aided” sector was a by-product of the expansion of funding and scope.
2.3 It had been, and remains, a major component of this system that the supplier base provides its own capital in order to set up organisations, provide premises and employ people. In this sense it is a free market where entrepreneurs have invested their own capital identifying gaps in the market and establishing businesses.
2.4 There were parallel changes in the private solicitor marketplace as conveyancing lost its fixed fee structures and in the more successful private client firms partners often became dissatisfied with low hourly rates of return in legal aid work and began shedding that work, a process accelerated from the 1990s as Legal Aid rates became frozen and eroded by inflation. Lord MacKay decided to abolish his Legal Aid Advisory Committee. The current panel constituted to assist in the review of criminal Legal Aid is a distant echo of that forerunner.
3.1 The Legal Aid Board brought forward the idea that suppliers would be contracted to supply Legal Aid services coupled to the idea of a quality mark. This had some basis in academic research (see the book, Standing Accused by McConville and Others which lamented poor standards in criminal work).
3.2 Other major structural developments were the establishing of the Crown Prosecution Service following major public scandals involving forced confessions by police officers and also the technological development of tape recording which allowed a new mode for conducting interviews. The 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act also introduced the idea of the delivery of rights by independent Custody Officers whilst extending police powers. One particularly significant development was the decision to allow the police 24 hours in which to detain a person before charge. This was fiercely debated with 12 hours as a viable alternative but this was rejected and 24 hours underpins the subsequent development of a lackadaisical approach to the investigation whilst the person is in custody. Providing access to legal advice in the Police Station was a major costs driver.
3.3 Initially contracting was to be voluntary and was expressly said not to be a policy which would become compulsory. Of course it did and very unfortunately contracting become a major dividing factor, there being separate crime and civil contracts. This rupture of services had profound consequences on the market causing firms to choose between spheres and although many continue to operate both there was also a large bureaucratic burden. That burden was another factor in private client firms continuing to abandon Legal Aid services.
4.1 What the entrepreneurial activity had created, in the context of the expansion of Legal Aid to meet need, was a rich fabric of firms and services. We have sometimes likened this to the ecology of a rainforest, diverse, valuable and especially establishing in local communities a variety of client choice and a feeling amongst clients, usually poorer and working class, that they had access to justice through “their” solicitor.
5.1 The foundation of reform was a myth, that Legal Aid expenditure was “out of control” accompanied by a sinister subtext that the forces driving expenditure were the supplier base improperly exploiting Legal Aid. Academic research showed that the driving factor was in fact the rise in need and volume of cases and a tsunami of legislation, especially in crime. Nevertheless this myth took hold.
5.2 The Paradox in the early 2000s was that the government was substantially investing in workers compensation schemes and rightly so, but whilst it spent billions on the one hand in those schemes it sought to cut Legal Aid expenditure by millions on the other.
5.3 Lord Carter proposed a crude simplistic trade off of volume for price a theme that has bedevilled so called “reform” ever since and dominated proposals for change.
5.4 The proposals that came forward were administratively complex and essentially foundered as they were unable to resolve contradictions between rewarding incumbent suppliers with market share and providing opportunities for new entrants, whilst also hopelessly confusing the nature of the market with other markets where there are multiple opportunities for suppliers to bid for work.
5.5 This is worth spelling out. The Ministry of Justice is a single purchaser of Legal Aid services. It sets prices. The suppliers when they bid for work (however defined) face an existential crisis. If their bid fails then they are out of business. There is no alternative place for them to bid.
5.6 In other words this Legal Aid market for services is not like, for example, the NHS, which procures across a vast organisation for multiple services offering bidders the opportunities to bid for difference sizes of contract in different geographical areas in circumstances where, therefore, the failure of a bid is not terminal to their business.
5.7 It was an historic strength of the system that it was open. In other words there were no limits on the number of contractors and sufficient prices allowed a degree of entrepreneurial activity to fill in gaps in the market place. As prices have declined so has that activity. However there are two other benefits from the way in which this market has operated.
5.8 A key element to successful entrepreneurial activity has been establishing reputation and this has been driven by the other key element of client choice. The introduction of the Duty Solicitor Schemes enabled firms to source a more “captive” work stream and gain clients through duty solicitor activity in courts and police stations. Nevertheless it still remained and remains an important element for all firms that the quality of what they do is sufficient to draw that client back to them or achieve word of mouth referrals. In this way client choice drives quality.
5.9 Unfortunately restrictions on the ability to transfer Representation Orders have led to a decline in consumer/client choice. There is a consumer paradox for people who are initially arrested, represented by a duty solicitor and bailed or released under investigation. At that stage, pre-charge, there is no Legal Aid available and they are actually free to make enquiries in the marketplace to find out if the solicitor they have accessed accidentally as the duty solicitor is the person best placed to represent them or whether they could find an alternative with better reputation. In this way consumers are free to move around within the market.
5.10 However, if for example, a person is arrestedfor murder, has a duty solicitor and is remanded in custodythey then find it very difficult to change due to the rules which to this degree undermine an aspect of client choice.
5.11 Contracting has also restricted the market by restricting the opportunities for new entrants to the start of each contract cycle as well as being a system which has severed civil and criminal services. The most startling reform that could be contemplated would be ending contracting completely. This would be a return to a pre-contracting era where all firms needed to do was to keep within the rules in respect of claims and payments. In other words that the work was properly done and claimed. Such a more open system would certainly allow new entrants and with other incentives and structural changes, allow firms to re-establish mixed practices of civil and crime and provide more local integrated services needed to meet the vast unmet need.
5.12 It is not difficult to be imaginative about what is possible in the Legal Aid market. The Legal Services Commission as the successor to the Legal Aid Board had a worthwhile initiative through which firms took on trainees who were subsidised directly by the LSC in return for a contractual commitment to stay in Legal Aid work for a period of time.
5.13 Legal Aid as a bespoke subject ought to be an option within law school courses and participation can be leveraged through grant, the relief of debt and payments to suppliers to provide subsequent training contracts.
6.1 Underpinning access to justice are the rights to a fair trial and equality of arms between the parties. Crucial is the adversarial system working properly to ensure that the court has before it all admissible evidence in order that the fundamental objective, which is the pursuit of truth, is achieved.
6.2 No one is facing up to the work, time and costs issues posed by the explosion of electronic material. It simply means that in cases where it is relevant (and there is often a contest about what is and what is not properly served as evidence or unused material) the evidence has got be examined and deployed by prosecution and defence. These are tasks which have made the process of litigation more time intensive and more costly. This is for the police as investigators, the prosecution as an independent prosecutorial body assessing the evidence and for the defendants. All require extra resources in the long term in a degree of magnitude to properly cope with the technological development. There is no shortcut and it simply requires more money and acceptance that this will be a demand led system that cannot be contained with fixed “envelopes” of cost.
7.1 The above argument in relation to the explosion of electronic material forms a context for the major other issue which has been the erosion of value. It is not possible for solicitors and counsel to continue negotiating around the same envelope of money being deployed for cases in new ways. Inventing other proxies for value or combining proxies with time or combining other structures of payment such as standard fees, non-standard fees, higher-standard fees still has to account for both the explosion in evidence and the fact that current values have been eroded to a degree where the work is unsustainable.
7.2 That unsustainability is evidenced by the recruitment and retention crisis within solicitors firms conducting criminal work. It is also evidenced by the almost complete separation of private client work and Legal Aid work within the solicitor’s profession and by the advancing age of the cohort of duty solicitors.
7.3 Research might also reveal a very similar pattern in relation to the ages of partners or directors of firms within the supplier base which is also similarly advancing. Career opportunities have been truncated by the short horizon of business, the uncertainty of profits and the lack of career paths.
7.4 One way of exiting is to the Crown Prosecution Service which now offers substantially better terms than are available generally within the defence community. Another way of exiting is to simply abandon the work and take up different careers. For students with vast debt Legal Aid is deeply unattractive.
8.1 It was a by-product of the expansion of Legal Aid and the availability of firms within communities providing a range of legally aided services that many millions of people could buy into the ideathat there was a degree of access to justice.
8.2 Much is written about alienation, voices not being heard, and the unrepresentative nature of politics, inequality and the socially excluded. Legal Aid cuts, in particular LASPO, have formed a backdrop which has accentuated exclusion.
8.3 Exclusion also has direct economic consequences. A family with less income because they are unable to challenge welfare benefit decisions live in greater poverty. Children in greater poverty are more likely to fail in the education system, often being excluded, more vulnerable to drift into gangs, crime and county lines drug dealing. Similarly challenging are living in conditions of disrepair, losing housing and the gross disruption of family life where there are cycles of imprisonment, alcohol and drug abuse and devastating adverse immigration decisions and deportation. Many live and are brought up in deeply hostile environments and too often the inability of fathers to access contact and maintain parenting has potentially disastrous consequences.
8.4 Add to these other factors such as loss of youth clubs, social workers, and the pressure of schools to exclude pupils. It is no wonder that the world of gang affiliation with its sense of identity and drug dealing giving access to otherwise unattainable riches is such a lure to young people and indeed older people involved in organised crime.
8.5 The extent of organised crime has been highlighted by the National Crime Agency in its bid for between £2-3billion to combat what it describes as a major threat to security and wellbeing. Will that funding and these initiatives drive more cases into the Criminal Justice System? The idea that more cases will arise which demand more resources stands in stark contrast to falling volume as a result of the debacle of the RUI stance adopted by many police forces in relation to the many thousands of people arrested.
8.6 What all of this means, including the review itself, is an extremely unstable environment for Legal Aid practitioners. Low margins make firms highly vulnerable to changes in case volume and case mix. A two year “review” is irrelevant to the immediate crisis. What is required is at least a short term injection of funds, the making good of the last 8.75% cut which was predicated on the manipulation of the supplier base producing fewer suppliers with higher volumes, which never took place, and which was in itself arbitrary and unfair. What is also needed however are not only higher levels of remuneration, but an imaginative reworking of incentives and structure to support an independent legal profession and a degree of stability which would allow businesses to flourish whilst meeting need.
9.1 At over 650 square miles with the largest concentration of population in the country London poses particular problems for Legal Aid lawyers.
9.1 It is an area of higher cost. Those costs relate to the costs of business premises, higher wages and higher costs for employees for accommodation and travel. In a recent Reed Business Support Salary Guide for 2019 an Office Manager in London is said to command a wage of £40,100. In the East Midlands the figure £23,700 and the North East £29,200 and the North West £23,900. In the South West and Wales the figure falls to £22,300.
9.3 Traditionally the particular costs base of London were recognised by additional London Weighting supplements on hourly rates. There is a powerful case for the reintroduction of London Weighting within any newly devised scheme.
9.4 Another myth is that there was an oversupply of firms in London. This is not true and the number of firms is proportionate to the population. This was established in passing by the KPMG report in the failed debacle of tendering Duty Solicitor Schemes.
9.5 London is the centre of political protest and government and inevitably public protest type crime tends to arise more often and so does financial crime attached to London being the centre of financial services.
9.6 A fundamental problems for practitioners has been the complete absence of planning. There is no court near a police station which is near a prison, they are spread haphazardly. The system has developed without the slightest regard for efficiencies that might arise from locating services together. Indeed plans to relocate remand prisoners only in Wandsworth, Belmarsh and Highdown, which is actually outside London in Sutton, would only exacerbate the problems.
9.7 Very large distances must now be traversed across London for defendants, ‘victims’ and witnesses and indeed all the participants in the court process.
9.8 The idea has been advanced frequently by the LCCSA for over a decade that there ought to be reform of the Duty Solicitor Scheme. At present solicitors join two courtschemes plus associated youth court schemes but are allocated to as many as eight or nine 24 hour police station schemes depending on the location of their office. This thins volume in any particular court. Bringing the schemes into line so that solicitors are allocated two or three police stations schemes most contiguous to their office and the court schemes ought to produce a greater volume of work for firms in their local courts.
9.9 Incidentally scheme inflation, by which many more people joined each individual scheme, was a product of a policy decision by the LSC to automatically allocate all qualifying solicitors, depending on the whereabouts of their office to every scheme that was available.
10.1 The immediate impulse for the review was the promise to the Bar to review the AGFS arrangements. That promise was then conflated with the existing idea of a review of the LGFS (no doubt more urgent from the perspective of the MOJ after the successful JR of their plan to cut £30M or so from the LGFS Scheme) and then in turn extended to encompass all fee schemes, police stations, magistrates’ courts and the VHCC scheme.
10.2 Three elements dominate legal aid fees for the last twenty five years. The erosion of fee structures by inflation. The endless cuts to EVERY fee scheme. The hugely bureaucratic, unmanageable and failed ‘reform’ proposals encompassing Best Value Tendering, Price Competitive Tendering and 2 tier contracting of duty solicitors schemes and other similar debacles including VHCC and family contracts. The 2 Tier debacle was accompanied by a completely arbitrary 17.5% cut in fees. What is extraordinary is the sheer scale of that cut; 17.5%, not 1.5 or 2% but this huge figure. Subsequently 8.75% was restored after the failure of the scheme, still leaving practitioners with a completely arbitrary 8.75% cut.
10.3 The common theme has been an approach to Legal Aid as a ‘market’ (fundamentally misunderstood, see para 5.) to be manipulated with the sole objective of driving down price (cuts) encouraged by overtures from a handful of ‘larger’ suppliers who sought greater volume and market share. In civil the hatchet of LASPO simply removed access to justice for millions of people and further disrupted and eroded the supplier base. .
10.4 What has been absent is any coherent view of Legal Aid based on principles of fair trial, equality of arms or access to justice through increasing the resource that enables people to believe they have the means (legally aided lawyers) to pursue their rights, that their stake in society and belief in its fairness, in the application of the rule of law to them, has meaning because they can rebalance the unfair advantage of ‘others’ who have the power (landlords, Councils, the DWP, insurance companies, the Home Office, Police) by instructing ‘their’ lawyer. This is the real context of rearranging fee structures; it is not an end in itself but only one component of policy that ought to have this enabling outcome. This Review perpetuates the division of crime and civil being confined to criminal Legal Aid fees when the reality is that legal aid services are accessed across lifetimes in multiple ways as need overlaps the civil and criminal boundaries.
10.5 That vision is entirely absent from this Review which is framed as the ‘right time to think more widely about the future of criminal legal aid schemes’, without any commitment to any funding increase, only to the ‘right level’ of legal aid provision. It is most likely to be a missed opportunity and actually another ‘cut’. The ravaging of value by inflation will not be addressed by a permanent compensatory mechanism, and any ‘ambitious’ attempt to manipulate the market will yet again misread its reality and lead to JR and debacle. Is this to be a moment (actually a year or two with continuing ministerial reshuffles) for reinvigorating access to justice (restoring the £1 billion about 1/800thof government expenditure) or another episode in the erosion of Legal Aid and its supplier base?
10.6 In the period 2004/2005 to 2019 Government Expenditure rose from around £400 billion to over £800 billion. In that period removing £1 billion from Legal Aid was a political choice. The courageous and correct political choice would be to restore access to justice by expanding the Legal Aid spend by £1 billion.
10.7 The complete absence of a commitment to restore funding levels and the absence of vision are depressing. There is little to indicate that the trajectory of the history of Legal Aid will change. Rather that the reality that will emerge will remain one of cuts, loss of services and more people who believe that justice is not to be found within the society in which they live.
As today’s resignation announcement by the Prime Minister prefigures, in bookmakers’ eyes at least, the dawn of a Boris Johnson premiership, I thought it worth typing up a thread I posted earlier this week in response to Mr Johnson’s latest column for the Daily Telegraph.
On Monday, the former Foreign Secretary proudly promoted his article on Twitter:
It is becoming more & more regular for prisoners to be let out early – even when they have been convicted of the most serious & violent crimes.
People must feel safe on our streets & that punishment fits the crime. People must have faith in our justice system 👇 https://t.co/nVoY786W7d
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) May 20, 2019
Taking a swipe at “our cock-eyed crook-coddling criminal justice system”, Mr Johnson alighted upon a story, reported by outlets including the Telegraph, concerning a convicted drug dealer called Luke Jewitt. Mr Jewitt was sentenced to imprisonment in 2014 for his involvement in a multi-million-pound conspiracy to import or supply cocaine, only to be released to enjoy a “luxury spa break” with his mother before his sentence had been served. According to the Telegraph,
“He is believed to have spent the day at the Santai Spa in Birmingham for Mother’s Day, at the end of March.
The spa boasts an outdoor jacuzzi with lake views, salt cave and mosaic hot-stone loungers. Packages at the luxury venue cost up to £140 per day.”
There is no suggestion that this was paid for by anyone other than Mr Jewitt; rather outrage is invited at the notion of a prisoner being released early, which, the writer assures us, “is becoming more and more regular”. As the headline has it, “Letting drug dealers out of prison to go on spa breaks is criminally stupid”. Unfortunately, in making this argument Mr Johnson’s characteristic fidelity to facts and detail abandons him.
Let’s see if we can reacquaint them.
Luke Jewitt was sentenced in 2014. The precise sentence he received is unclear. If you believe The Telegraph (left), it was 10 years’ imprisonment. If you believe Boris Johnson writing in The Telegraph (right), it was nine years.
But either way, at something approaching the halfway point of his sentence, he was released on temporary licence (or “let out on day release”, in the tabloid argot), during which time he attended the aforementioned spa. Mr Johnson’s apoplexy is untrammelled:
Not merely a jacuzzi, dear readers, but a visit to the National Sea Life Centre. Is nothing sacred?
From this starting point, Mr Johnson lines up a medley of propositions. Some highlights are below.
We are then offered the writer’s considered views on the thorny issue of stop and search. Fortunately, contrary to research suggesting that stop and search is deployed in a racially discriminatory manner, Mr Johnson reassures us that it, in fact, isn’t. He is not able to offer any evidence for this claim, but his word is surely his bond.
As for his primary concern, the early release of offenders, Mr Johnson has identified the culprits: it is the “politically correct” Parole Board, responsible for endangering public safety by licensing rapists to reoffend and drug kingpins to purify and replenish with naturally detoxifying algae leaving the skin looking refined, toned and beautifully radiant. The release of Luke Jewitt, Johnson posits in a puddle of consciousness, is an example of the “need to root out the Leftist culture of so much of the criminal justice establishment.”
There are a few problems with this thesis. Firstly, the case “earlier this month” to which Mr Johnson refers involving “the convicted rapist out on early release”, who “allegedly commit several more rapes immediately”. Assuming that this is the case which has made headlines (and about which we must be cautious due to criminal proceedings now being live), the man involved was not a convicted rapist, but a burglar. And this was not a case in which the Parole Board had directed his release; rather it was reported that due to an administrative error, he was released by the prison having erroneously bypassed the Parole Board. To lay this at the Parole Board’s door is, to quote Mary Whitehouse (probably), pretty fucking dishonest.
But beyond this mangled non-example, the foundation of Johnson’s argument betrays a woeful ignorance of the entire subject matter. He seems to be under the impression that a prisoner’s release is always governed by the Parole Board. It’s not. For the vast majority of prisoners serving a standard determinate sentence, release on licence is automatic once you’ve served half of your prison sentence. I’ve blogged before on this, as it’s frequently misunderstood.
Parole Boards tend to focus their attentions on dangerous prisoners, including those sentenced to life imprisonment or to other types of sentence for which release is not automatic, such as now-abolished imprisonment for public protection (IPP), or “extended sentences” imposed on a dangerous offenders. In order to be released from such sentences, a prisoner has to persuade the Parole Board that his incarceration is longer necessary for the protection of the public. Now Parole Boards are far from perfect; the case last year of John Worboys gave a troubling insight into the errors that plagued the Parole Board’s decision to direct his release, and it would be naive to conclude that this is an isolated case. No doubt errors occur, and quite possibly more frequently than we perhaps wish to imagine. However, Johnson’s claim that “It is becoming more and more regular for prisoners to be let out early – even when they have been convicted of the most serious and violent crimes” is accompanied by absolutely no evidence whatsoever. Indeed, if we were trading in boring facts, we might observe that England & Wales has more prisoners serving indeterminate and life sentences than any other country in Europe, suggesting that neither courts nor Parole Boards are overly eager on the frivolous release of dangerous prisoners. But the assertion that there is a recent acceleration in the release of dangerous offenders is simply that. There is not even a whiff of evidence tendered in support.
But back to drug lords, and other prisoners whose release is not dependent on the approval of the Parole Board. They are all entitled to automatic release at the halfway point of their sentence, and as they approach that point can be entitled to release on temporary licence (ROTL), subject to a risk assessment. Full details are available here, but a summary of the types of ROTL is below.
It is this scheme which Johnson describes as “criminally stupid”. Letting prisoners out for the odd day here and there – what possible good can it do? Well, quite a lot, the evidence suggests. A recent government report – a government of which Mr Johnson was, until toys exeunted the pram, a member – concluded that the analysis was is “consistent with the conclusion that ROTL reduces reoffending”. So even if the notion of somebody serving a few days’ less on their sentence fills you with righteous indignation, the evidence that it makes us all a little safer is a fairly important fact to omit from an honest discussion.
That all said, there remains an understandable public bugbear when it comes to the concept of automatic release at the halfway stage of a prison sentence. I’ve written about this in my book. The public hear or read “10 years”, and feel justifiably deceived when they discover that 10 means 5 (minus any time already served on remand awaiting trial or sentence). Now there are reasons as to why we grant automatic release halfway through a sentence. One reason is that this mechanism saves the government money, gifting them the tabloid headlines of long prison sentences without the Treasury having to actually pay for them. Less cynically, it is also argued that it helps reintegrate prisoners into society and aids rehabilitation. If they reoffend on licence, they can be recalled to serve the remainder of their sentence.
But let’s park that debate to one side. Instead, let’s ask why we have automatic halfway release at all? Which MPs were in Parliament when such a thing was introduced?
Well, automatic release at the halfway stage of all determinate sentences has been a fixture since the enactment of section 244 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003. Present in Parliament as an MP when this legislation passed was one Boris Johnson. Can you guess how many impassioned speeches he gave in the Commons against the “criminally stupid” idea of automatically releasing prisoners early? In fact, how many times has he ever spoken in Parliament about early release, or the Parole Board, or release on temporary licence?
From wherever springs this yearning to draw public attention to the horrors of early release on licence, it has lain dormant for a good sixteen years. Heaven forfend that this newly-discovered zeal for making the lives of prisoners more miserable and antagonistic baiting of “politically correct” and “left wing” criminal justice is merely the latest exploit of a populist charlatan tossing bucketfulls of cheap fatty red meat to the Party Faithful just as a certain job opening emerges.
Another weekend, another flurry of anti-legal aid stories finding their way into the tabloids. On the criminal legal aid front, The Mirror splashed outrage at the notion of Andrew Hill, the pilot acquitted of manslaughter following the Shoreham Airshow tragedy, “getting” legal aid to mount his successful defence at his criminal trial last year.
It’s one thing when The Mirror – a market leader in legal aid trash news – whips its readers into uninformed apoplexy over criminal legal aid being granted to those who are, after a fair trial only possible because of legal aid, convicted. But it breaks bold new ground even for this organ to resent legal aid being granted to a man whom a jury has found to be not guilty.
Then this morning, the Daily Mail, in a headline which may stand out as the apotheosis of journalistic legal ignorance, announced:
“Shamima Begum is on legal aid despite being stripped of UK citizenship”.
In much the same way that the people I prosecute and defend are granted legal aid despite being accused of criminal offences. Or diabetes patients are treated on the NHS despite having diabetes.
Shamima Begum is, of course, the tabloid ghoul du jour. A 15-year-old Bethnal Green schoolgirl fleeing her home country to join a terror cult abroad, and, four years later, intending to swan back in as if nothing had happened, is the stuff of a red top news editor’s wettest dreams. In February, Home Secretary Sajid Javid, in apparent defiance of his own Home Office advice and with a Fleabag smirk to the cameras, took the decision to revoke Ms Begum’s British citizenship. She is now appealing the Home Secretary’s decision to the Special Immigration Appeals Commission and is likely to be eligible for legal aid.
Today’s Mail “scoop” follows allegations in The Telegraph that Ms Begum, while an “ISIS bride” in Syria, served as an enforcer in the “morality police” and sewed suicide vests onto her fellow jihadis, playing a far more active role in the group’s activities than she had previously suggested. The veracity of these reports is unclear, but let’s take as face value that they are correct, and that she was not merely a stay-at-home ISIS bride, but an enthusiastic accessory to the most appalling crimes against humanity.
Would this make her despicable? Yes. Meritorious of opprobrium, disgust, contempt and fury? Yup. A criminal? Among the very worst. Deserving of legal aid? Without a shadow of a doubt.
We’ve trodden these boards a thousand times before, but as the basics are yet to be learned by those with the biggest megaphones, they need repeating.
Everybody – no matter what they have done or are alleged to have done – is entitled to equal treatment before the law. That is the building block not only of the rule of law, but of our entire democracy. You don’t earn equal treatment, or qualify for it through good behaviour. It applies universally. The day we start making exceptions for the people who offend us the most is the day our civilisation crumbles.
Everybody is also entitled to a fair hearing where a legal decision has been taken which affects them. The removal of a person’s citizenship – a government telling a British-born citizen You have no right to exist within our borders – is one of the most far-reaching decisions the state can make. We do not want to live in a country where politicians can act with unchecked power; the rule of law requires that those affected have a route to challenge a decision and have an independent court review the evidence and decide whether that decision was taken in accordance with the law.
In this case, while there will be a lot of material to which the public will never have access upon which the government will rely, there are obvious concerns on the face of what we do know. International law prohibits domestic governments from rendering citizens stateless. Ms Begum is a British national born and bred; the Home Secretary is relying on her supposed eligibility for Bangladeshi citizenship (through her parents) to comply with international law. Bangladesh is a country which Ms Begum has never visited and which, for what it is worth, has publicly rejected the notion that she would be granted Bangladeshi citizenship.
It is far from certain that the Home Secretary has acted lawfully. It is obviously vital to establish that he has. This can only properly be done at a fair independent hearing at which the legal and factual arguments for and against are fully and competently presented. The Home Office will not spare any expense in instructing counsel to fight its corner (Theresa May was a fan of instructing multiple QCs for single cases to try to give herself an advantage). Equality of arms, another basic principle of the rule of law, requires that the citizen, Shamima Begum, be competently represented. As she is currently unable to pay for her own lawyers, lying destitute in a Syrian refugee camp, she will need to rely upon legal aid. Without legal aid, the case will not be properly argued; indeed, as she is currently banned from entering the country, without representation it will not be argued at all.
The benefits of the case being argued and a judgment being given flow not only to Shamima Begum, but to all of us. This is not merely a private matter of concern to her; all of us live under the law, and all of us need to know that our government is acting lawfully. Moreover, there will be many more cases of this type over the coming years. This decision could ultimately set a precedent, making clear the circumstances in which the government can revoke British citizenship from British-born citizens. Such a precedent is of value to all of us. Because while today, it’s Sajid Javid making a decision affecting Shamima Begum, tomorrow it could be a different Home Secretary making a decision affecting you, or someone you love. And while you may not care what happens to Shamima Begum, you will sure as heck want the law to be fairly applied to you. And this is the point about the law: it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. A decision affecting one of us affects us all. We all have a shared interest in ensuring that the law works as it should. As Lord Reed said in a famous Supreme Court decision:
At the heart of the concept of the rule of law is the idea that society is governed by law. Parliament exists primarily in order to make laws for society in this country. Democratic procedures exist primarily in order to ensure that the Parliament which makes those laws includes Members of Parliament who are chosen by the people of this country and are accountable to them. Courts exist in order to ensure that the laws made by Parliament, and the common law created by the courts themselves, are applied and enforced. That role includes ensuring that the executive branch of government carries out its functions in accordance with the law. In order for the courts to perform that role, people must in principle have unimpeded access to them. Without such access, laws are liable to become a dead letter, the work done by Parliament may be rendered nugatory, and the democratic election of Members of Parliament may become a meaningless charade. That is why the courts do not merely provide a public service like any other.
Shamima Begum herself, of course, will not receive a penny of taxypayers’ money. Legal aid is claimed from the Legal Aid Agency directly by her lawyers. A grant of legal aid is also not a bottomless pit, despite what the tabloids falsely claim. It is paid at fixed rates set by government, far below market value – and usually far below what the state pays its own lawyers. And it is designed, like the NHS, to ensure that all of us have our basic rights and dignity respected, whatever we have done. We do not withhold publicly-funded medical treatment for criminals, terrorists or other social undesirables; we recognise that to do so would be barbaric, the mark of a country that has badly lost its way.
So when the Mail invites its readers to fulminate and howl and ask Why should the public pay for this awful woman’s legal aid?, the answer that should be given – by our Lord Chancellor, preferably, as the person with the statutory obligation to uphold the rule of law – is because that is the price of living under the rule of law. If you’d rather exist in a society where the rules are not applied equally, where your entitlement to a fair trial is dependent on the whims of government officials or the roar of the effigy-burning mob or the deepness of your pockets, there are plenty of countries out there willing to oblige.
UPDATE: A common response to this story today has been from people who, understandably, feel aggrieved that more attractive (or “deserving”) causes than Shamima Begum were denied legal aid. Inquests are a particular area where legal aid has been refused for bereaved families, but the non-availability of legal aid stretches across the justice system, from the family courts to employment law to housing to welfare to personal injury to crime to immigration and so on. Many, many people have been denied justice due to refusal of legal aid. But to attack the granting of legal aid to Shamima Begum is, with respect, to miss the point. The scandal is not that Shamima Begum is eligible for legal aid in complex legal proceedings carrying life-changing consequences, but that so many other people have had legal aid refused and removed as part of the appalling attacks on legal aid that successive governments have wrought. It is not party political – all three main parties in government have fed the lies about legal aid to the press and public that have purchased political cover for them to obliterate legal aid and prevent ordinary people from accessing justice. In the 1980s, 79 per cent of the population was eligible for legal aid. By 2015, this had plummeted to 25 per cent. Public anger should be directed at the politicians who have convinced us that cutting legal aid is a good thing, not the few people who are still able to access justice.