Guest Post: The Secret BPTC Student on legal aid cuts and the criminal Bar

I am delighted that a current law student, and soon-to-be criminal pupil, has taken the time to write the following explainer on the ongoing dispute between the criminal Bar and the government over legal aid fees and the funding of the criminal justice system. A point which would be easy to lose – and which, more importantly, the Ministry of Justice hopes will be lost – in the clamour is that this is not simply about lawyers’ fees. The Ministry of Justice’s new legal aid pay rates for advocates (“Advocates’ Graduated Fee Scheme”), which amount in practice to a cut of up to 40% in complex cases, is simply the final straw. Our argument is that criminal justice across the board has been subjected to financial cuts unrivalled in other government departments, with the result that every aspect – from the police to the Crown Prosecution Service to legal aid to the crumbling fabric of our courts – is on its knees. Something has to change. This is the message that needs dutifully repeating to the public, as the below post emphasises. It also contains a very kind plug for my book, which I am obviously going to support.
 
The Criminal Bar is taking direct action as a result of new legal aid cuts. This post explains why action is being taken and why everyone should care about it. 
 
Since 3 April, 90 criminal chambers (at the time of writing) have refused to take on new government funded legal aid cases; this means that defendants will be unrepresented in the Crown Courts (where the most serious cases are tried). Such action could bring the courts system to a halt – a matter not lightly embarked upon. 
 
Action is being taken because the criminal justice system is in crisis.
 
Chronic underfunding of the criminal justice system has resulted in: 
  • cases not being heard for months if not years after an incident, 
  • victims and witnesses unsupported through the process, 
  • defendants on low incomes go unrepresented (being ineligible for legal aid),
  • police fail to disclose vital evidence until the 11th hour, 
  • prosecutors given only 15mins to prepare trials in the Magistrates’ Courts (where most cases are heard),
  • despite the backlog of cases, judges are unavailable to hear them and courts are being closed,
  • the prison estate is in meltdown, with violence and drug use soaring each year,
  • the probation service fails to appropriately manage offenders in the community, 
  • some forensic labs operate without proper certification, affecting the reliability of scientific evidence presented in court, 
  • and in one incident, part of the ceiling of a Crown Court fell in. A terrifyingly apt metaphor for the current state of our justice system. 

The most likely result of a broken criminal justice system? Miscarriages of justice.

This is not theoretical. 

On 27 March 2018, the Chief Inspector of the Crown Prosecutor Service gave evidence to MPs on the Commons Justice Committee. He approvingly quoted from a report (by the Criminal Cases Review Commission), which stated that, “…disclosure failings were the single most frequent cause in the steady stream of miscarriages of justice.” 

Miscarriages of justice have already occurred. You might be its next victim. And the situation is about to get worse…

From 1st April, legal aid rates have been cut by approximately 30%. This is on top of previous cuts to legal aid. Why should anyone care about this?

The principal consequence is that it makes it more likely that guilty people will go free and innocent people will be imprisoned. 

Barristers are independent, self-employed individuals who represent clients at court; as a result, they must prepare for cases during the evenings and at weekends, often at low rates or sometimes for free. Currently, the average yearly earnings for a junior criminal barrister starting out is around £12,000 gross, less than the minimum wage. 

As a result of these cuts, swathes of the bar will no longer be able to survive in practice, with women, those from BAME backgrounds and those at the most junior end bearing the brunt. If the bar remains a profession where only those with wealthy parents can afford to enter, it will neither become representative of the people nor will it guarantee high quality advocacy. Moreover, judges are predominantly drawn from the bar and their judgments have enormous impact upon the country. We need talented advocates who are representative of our society, at all levels of expertise, in order to ensure a fair justice system. We must retain our advocates and call for proper funding of the system as a whole.

As the late Sir Henry Brooke said, “This is not about money for lawyers. The liberties of England are at stake.”

 

Lawyers are taking action to save the criminal justice system. Please support them. 

How you can support our criminal justice system:
  1. Please share this blog post with everyone you know. 
  2. Please buy and read a copy of The Secret Barrister’s book ‘Stories of The Law and How It’s Broken’. It will both inform and entertain you about the crisis in our justice system. No legal knowledge needed. Published only two weeks ago, it has made the Sunday Times best sellers list, been quoted in Parliament, and lawyers have crowd funded to send a copy to every MP. Available on Amazon at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Secret-Barrister-Stories-Law-Broken/dp/1509841105
  3. Write to your local MP. Let them know that their copy of the Secret Barrister’s book will be arriving; ask them to put it at the top of their reading list and ask them to take action to save the criminal justice system.

The Secret BPTC Student

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