Shamima Begum may not deserve your sympathy, but she is entitled to legal aid

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.

 

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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.

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Without legal aid, the rule of law collapses

The Guardian is currently running a brilliant series on the effect of the legal aid cuts turbo-charged by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. Owen Bowcott and Amelia Hill have put together an in-depth investigation drawing on case studies and interviews to demonstrate the dire impact upon access to justice.

One such interview, should you be interested, was with me, and can be found here.

GUEST POST: An open letter to the Chair of the Criminal Bar Association

An open letter to the Chair of the Criminal Bar Association in relation to legal aid rates under the Advocates’ Graduated Fee Scheme (AGFS), signed by 193 criminal barristers.

 

Dear Chris,

We write to you and the CBA executive as junior Criminal barristers of 0-12 years’ call, in the wake of the government’s consultation response to Amending the Advocates’ Graduated Fee Scheme (AGFS 11), published on 10 December 2018.

We recognise the unenviable task the CBA executive faces in negotiating with the MoJ, and do not write in an effort to sow discord.  However, what follows is an earnest and unapologetic attempt to convey to you and the CBA leadership the strength and depth of our feeling against AGFS 11, even as amended.

The Monday Message sent on 10 December 2018 described the proposed amendments as “tangible progress”, and sounded a note of optimism that “[w]e are beginning to turn things around”.

Regrettably, we do not share this optimism. We are alsounderwhelmed by the degree of progress.  The fact that it is unprecedented does not of itself render it acceptable or worthy of celebration; following, as it does, over two decades of savage and dangerous cuts to the justice and Legal Aid budgets.

The 1% uplift and implementation of the newest statutory instrument with investment of the “additional” £8 million was simply the fulfilment of a promise; a promise on which the government had sought to renege.  On any view, the government’s reliance on out-of-date figures on which to base its offer of a £15 million “increase” was at best a mistake and at worst a conscious and cynicalmisrepresentation.

We are angry.  We believe that:

1. The current AGFS scheme is not fit for purpose;
2. Dramatic changes need to be made to the structure of how AGFS is paid;
3. There needs to be a significant increase in funding across the board (both defence and CPS funding);
4. A delay of 18 months until renegotiation is unacceptable.

It would be wrong to think that we at the (junior) junior Bar are not equally concerned with the destruction of PPE as those more senior. Its loss in paper-heavy cases represents the dismantling of our future. Moreover, when senior members inevitably begin to choose their cases more shrewdly, those of us lower down will face the unenviable choice of taking on cases we fear are too complex for our call or having gaps in our diaries.  We are seeing many examples of this happening already.

The current structure of payment, whereby guilty plea fees and cracked trial fees do not reflect the work involved in preparing for guilty pleas and ineffective trials (especially in cases that run to several thousandpages and beyond), is also creating a real risk to the quality of representation. The lack of adequate remuneration for work done out of court is greatly exacerbated (especially in the case of junior juniors) by the ubiquitous use of warned lists, with their in-built likelihood that counsel who prepares the case will not in fact do the trial (notwithstanding advices on evidence, conferences, legal arguments, defence statements, etc.). This has already begun to erode that quality of representation, with individuals understandably finding it impossible to justify the preparation time previously allocated to such cases, and to “go the extra mile”, as was previously routine.

The fees report due in 2020 will be redundant by the time it is published. There will either have been the dramatic change in funding that is needed by then or many of us will already have left the profession.  We are haemorrhaging talent. The idea that we don’t yet have a clear enough picture of the effect that AGFS 11 is having, and will continue to have, is laughable.  Whether the government likes it or not, the experiences of individual barristers are telling, and taken together they start to add up to irrefutable evidence.

Junior juniors are voting with their feet. They are either ceasing to conduct Legal Aid work (whether by moving into other areas of practice or going on long-term secondment) or they are leaving the self-employed Bar altogether.

We expect the MoJ to continue to listen and engage with the profession now, not in 2020.  What we want is a coherent and sustainable system of remuneration for work done.  This can and must be achieved without delay, through further negotiation. Plainly, we can only speak on behalf of those who have signed this letter, but for our part, we are in favour of direct action in the New Year, if needed to bring the MoJ back to the table. We acknowledge this will require careful planning and some creativity, with every effort made to protect those who would be financially unable to participate in, for example, a return to ‘no returns’.  We envisage discussions to that end early in the New Year and are cognisant of the need to prompt a meaningful response from government before March (n.b. Brexit).

At the juniors’ meeting on 24th November 2018 the mood was plainly, and strongly, in favour of further industrial action. It may be that the “additional” funding for AGFS11 has placated all of those individuals, and those whose views they conveyed to the meeting. All we ask is that the CBA does not simply assume that this is the case. Certainly, in respect of those who have signed this letter, it is not.

21 December 2018

Sent on behalf of:

1. Natalie Bird, 2 Bedford Row [2015]
2. Sam Shurey, 2 Bedford Row [2015]
3. Emilie Morrison, 2 Harcourt Buildings [2013]
4. Imogen Nelson, 2 Harcourt Buildings [2014]
5. Sam Barker, 2 Harcourt Buildings [2014]
6. Amy Oliver, 2 Harcourt Buildings [2016]
7. Will Martin, 2 Hare Court [2010]
8. Charlotte Watts, 2 Hare Court [2012]
9. Joshua Scouller, 2 King’s Bench Walk [2012]
10. Matilda Robinson-Murphy, 2 Kings Bench Walk[2015]
11. Patrick D.Harte, 3 Temple Gardens [2006]
12. Charles Durrant, 3 Temple Gardens [2006]
13. Jodie-Jane Hitchcock, 3 Temple Gardens [2006]
14. Kate Chidgey, 3 Temple Gardens [2006]
15. Nick Whitehorn, 3 Temple Gardens [2006]
16. Andrew Horsell, 3 Temple Gardens [2009]
17. Carina Clare, 3 Temple Gardens [2012]
18. Will Glover, 3 Temple Gardens [2012]
19. Cameron Scott, 3 Temple Gardens [2012]
20. Nargees Choudhury, 3 Temple Gardens [2013]
21. Ruth Reid, 3 Temple Gardens [2013]
22. Karlia Lykourgou, 3 Temple Gardens [2013]
23. Beverley Da Costa, 3 Temple Gardens [2015]
24. Brad Lawlor, 3 Temple Gardens [2016]
25. Emily Lauchlan, 4 Bream’s Buildings [2012]
26. Ryan Brennan, 4 Bream’s Buildings [2012]
27. Rebecca Bax, 4 Bream’s Buildings [2012]
28. Ylenia Rosso, 4 Bream’s Buildings [2014]
29. Kiran Pourawal, 4 Bream’s Buildings [2014]
30. Syam Soni, 4 Bream’s Buildings [2015]
31. Rebecca Moss, 4 Bream’s Buildings [2016]
32. Christina Josephides, 4 Bream’s Buildings [2016]
33. Michael Cameron-Mowat, 4 Bream’s Buildings[2017]
34. Phoebe Bragg, 5 King’s Bench Walk [2015]
35. Kate Parker, 5 Paper Buildings [2014]
36. John Oliver, 5 St Andrew’s Hill [2008]
37. Dave Williams, 5 St Andrew’s Hill [2009]
38. Karl Masi, 5 St Andrew’s Hill [2011]
39. Alexandra Davey, 5 St Andrew’s Hill [2013]
40. Nick Jones, 5 St Andrew’s Hill [2016]
41. Puneet Grewal, 9 Bedford Row [2010]
42. Charlotte Mitchell-Dunn, 9 Bedford Row [2012]
43. Alex Matthews, 9 Bedford Row [2012]
44. Dréa Becker, 9 Bedford Row [2012]
45. Katie Mustard, 9 Bedford Row [2014]
46. Richard Reynolds, 9 Bedford Row [2014]
47. Leena Lakhani, 9 Bedford Row [2015]
48. Stefan Hyman, 9 Bedford Row [2015]
49. Aqeel Noorali, 9 Gough Square [2017]
50. Helen Dawson, 15 New Bridge Street [2015]
51. Oliver Kavanagh, 15 New Bridge Street [2015]
52. Ellen Wright, 15 New Bridge Street [2017]
53. Tom Lord, 15 Winckley Square [2009]
54. Kimberley Obrusik, 15 Winckley Square [2010]
55. Lucy Wright, 15 Winckley Square [2011]
56. Colette Renton, 15 Winckley Square [2015]
57. Sarah Magill, 15 Winckley Square [2016]
58. Holly Nelson, 15 Winckley Square [2017]
59. Patrick Duffy, 23 Essex Street [2007]
60. Nathan Rasiah, 23 Essex Street [2007]
61. Daniel Lister, 23 Essex Street [2009]
62. Carolina Cabral, 23 Essex Street [2009]
63. Jeremy Rosenberg, 23 Essex Street [2009]
64. Elisabeth Acker, 23 Essex Street [2010]
65. Helena Duong, 23 Essex Street [2010]
66. Victoria Gainza, 23 Essex Street [2010]
67. Rupert Wheeler, 23 Essex Street [2010]
68. Sarah-Kate McIntyre, 23 Essex Street [2011]
69. Alex Mills, 23 Essex Street [2012]
70. Sam Trefgarne, 23 Essex Street [2012]
71. Daniel O’Donoghue, 23 Essex Street [2013]
72. David Dainty, 23 Essex Street [2013]
73. Sasha Queffurus, 23 Essex Street [2014]
74. Robert Smith, 23 Essex Street [2014]
75. Tom White, 23 Essex Street [2015]
76. Kelly Cyples, 23 Essex Street [2016]
77. Josephine Teale, 23 Essex Street [2016]
78. Amelia Clegg, 23 Essex Street [2017]
79. Sushil Kumar, 25 Bedford Row [2009]
80. Henry Dickson, 25 Bedford Row [2012]
81. Laura Collier, 25 Bedford Row [2013]
82. Natasha Lloyd-Owen, 25 Bedford Row [2013]
83. Tom Flavin, 25 Bedford Row [2013]
84. Joy Lewis, 25 Bedford Row [2014]
85. Vida Simpeh, 25 Bedford Row [2014]
86. Nick Murphy, 25 Bedford Row [2015]
87. Suzanne Payne, 30 Park Place [2014]
88. Andrew Kerr, 33 Bedford Row [2006]
89. Dudley Beal, 33 Bedford Row [2014]
90. Stephen Reynolds, 33 Bedford Row [2014]
91. Roxanne Aisthorpe, 36 Bedford Row [2011]
92. Catherine Rose, The 36 Group [2017]
93. Dharmendra Toor, The 36 Group [2010]
94. Nadeem Holland, The 36 Group [2006]
95. Gerwyn Wise, 187 Fleet Street [2010]
96. Edward Duncan Smith, 187 Fleet Street [2011]
97. Daisy Monahan, 187 Fleet Street [2012]
98. Liam Edwards, 187 Fleet Street [2014]
99. Vakas Hussain, 187 Fleet Street [2014]
100. Gavin Capper, 187 Fleet Street [2015]
101. Tom Worden, 187 Fleet Street [2017]
102. Robert Levack, 187 Fleet Street [2017]
103. Sebastian Cox, 187 Fleet Street [2017]
104. Ann Crighton, Ann Crighton Chambers [2015]
105. Becky Owen, Becky Owen Law [2007]
106. Libby Anderson, Charter Chambers [2016]
107. Simon Elliott, Church Court Chambers [2007]
108. Alison Pryor, Church Court Chambers [2008]
109. Richard Mohabir, Church Court Chambers [2009]
110. Colin Witcher, Church Court Chambers [2010]
111. Tomas McGarvey, Church Court Chambers [2010]
112. Chiara Maddocks, Church Court Chambers [2011]
113. Fiona McAddy, Church Court Chambers [2011]
114. Anthony Eskander, Church Court Chambers [2012]
115. Estelle Thornber, Church Court Chambers [2012]
116. Michael Polak, Church Court Chambers [2012]
117. Gregory Wedge, Church Court Chambers [2014]
118. Holly Kilbey, Cornwall Street Barristers [2010]
119. Jeanette Stevenson, Cornwall Street Barristers [2012]
120. Andrew Parker, Cornwall Street Barristers [2016]
121. Georgia Luscombe, Drystone Chambers [2017]
122. Peter Killen, Exchange Chambers [2015]
123. Maya Chopra, Farringdon Chambers [2014]
124. Tom Hoskins, Foundry Chambers [2007]
125. Jonathan Underhill, Foundry Chambers [2008]
126. Merry van Woodenberg, Foundry Chambers [2012]
127. Jessica Tate, Foundry Chambers [2012]
128. Christopher Harper, Foundry Chambers [2013]
129. Sophie Murray, Foundry Chambers [2013]
130. Sophie Stannard, Foundry Chambers [2015]
131. Bethany Condron, Foundry Chambers [2016]
132. Yusuf Solley, Furnival Chambers [2009]
133. Sophie O’Sullivan, Furnival Chambers [2011]
134. Selena Jones, Furnival Chamers [2011]
135. Sam Stockwell, Furnival Chambers [2012]
136. Mandisa Knights, Furnival Chambers [2013]
137. Tulay Hodge, Furnival Chambers [2014]
138. Sadaf Etemadi, Furnival Chambers [2014]
139. Shannon Revel, Furnival Chambers [2014]
140. Chris Waymont, Furnival Chambers [2014]
141. Hannah Burton, Furnival Chambers [2014]
142. Andrew Taylor, Furnival Chambers [2015]
143. Charlotte Bellamy, Furnival Chambers [2017]
144. Shahida Begum, Garden Court Chambers [2008]
145. Meredoc McMinn, Garden Court Chambers [2015]
146. Elizabeth Garcia, Garden Court Chambers [2016]
147. Charlotte Bull, Goldsmith Chambers [2016]
148. Hannah Whelan, KCH Garden Square [2010]
149. Priya Bakshi, KCH Garden Square [2012]
150. Elisabeth Evans, KCH Garden Square [2012]
151. Samuel Coe, KCH Garden Square [2012]
152. Daniel Harman, Kenworthy’s Chambers [2008]
153. Simon Blakebrough, Kenworthy’s Chambers [2011]
154. Robert Lassey, Kenworthy’s Chambers [2016]
155. Sarah Cook, Kenworthy’s Chambers [2016]
156. Michael Shilliday, Lamb Building [2012]
157. Hannah Hurley, Lamb Building [2012]
158. James Hay, Lamb Building [2012]
159. Simon Gurney, Lincoln House Chambers [2006]
160. Lee Hughes, Lincoln House Chambers [2012]
161. Isobel Thomas, Lincoln House Chambers [2012]
162. Marianne Alton, Lincoln House Chambers [2014]
163. Matthew Bolt, Maidstone Chambers [2012]
164. Kate Smith, Maidstone Chambers [2013]
165. Anita Davies, Matrix Chambers [2011]
166. Margaret Morrissey, Morrissey’s Chambers [2015]
167. Katrina Wilson, No.1 High Pavement Chambers[2007]
168. Lucky Thandi, No.1 High Pavement Chambers[2011]
169. Abigail Hill, No.1 High Pavement Chambers[2013]
170. Almas Ben-Aribia, No.1 High Pavement Chambers[2013]
171. Rebecca Coleman, No.1 High Pavement Chambers[2013]
172. Lucy Jones, No.1 High Pavement Chambers [2014]
173. Helen Marley, No.1 High Pavement Chambers[2016]
174. Ramya Nagesh, No.5 [2008]
175. Philip Vollans, No.5 [2015]
176. Thomas Coke-Smith, QEB Hollis Whiteman [2011]
177. Arabella MacDonald, QEB Hollis Whiteman [2012]
178. Eloise Emanuel, QEB Hollis Whiteman [2012]
179. Kathryn Hughes, QEB Hollis Whiteman [2013]
180. Ruth Broadbent, QEB Hollis Whiteman [2016]
181. Kyan Pucks, QEB Hollis Whiteman [2016]
182. Lauren Sales, Red Lion Chambers [2010]
183. Timothy Kiely, Red Lion Chambers [2014]
184. Marcus Harry, St Ives Chambers [2008]
185. Justin Jarmola, St Ives Chambers [2009]
186. Anthony Cartin, St Ives Chambers [2010]
187. William Douglas-Jones, St Ives Chambers [2011]
188. Lucinda Wilmott-Lascelles, St Ives Chambers[2014]
189. Aadhithya Anbahan, St Ives Chambers [2015]
190. Alexander Pritchard-Jones, St Ives Chambers [2015]
191. Gemma Maxwell, St John’s Buildings [2014]
192. Stephanie Wookey, Thomas More Chambers [2010]
193. Genevieve Moss, Thomas More Chambers [2015]

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.

GUEST POST: An open letter to The Criminal Bar Association, The South Eastern Circuit and The Bar Council

Below is an open letter published by five junior criminal practitioners in relation to the new Advocates Graduated Fee Scheme (AGFS), which for non-lawyers is the scheme for payment of defence advocates in legally aided criminal cases. 

 

19thNovember 2018

 

We write in relation to a case which has just collapsed at the Crown Court sitting at Inner London. We write to express our dismay at the remuneration under the new AGFS scheme and the consequences which will now follow.

This was a five handed Conspiracy to Kidnap and Blackmail case and was listed with a four week estimate, due to commence today (19thNovember 2018). All counsel/advocates were instructed at the outset of this case.

The evidence was voluminous to say the least, with near enough 10,000 pages of used and served evidence and all counsel taking approximately 2 weeks out of court on various days to prepare the case for trial. Much of the evidence consisted of telephone transcripts and translated Spanish telephone evidence along with cell site mapping.

Only last week, the Crown disclosed information relating to the complainants character and that he was now refusing to come to court to give evidence. Indeed, he lost contact with the police officers in the case and switched his mobile phone off. This resulted in the crown applying to adduce his evidence under the hearsay provisions.

All defence counsel prepared skeleton arguments outlining their objections to the Crown’s application. These took several hours to research and prepare. There is no (and it should be highlighted, never has been), provision for payment for written work under the graduated fee regulations; a fact which in itself is utterly unacceptable.

But even more disgraceful are the rates of pay for such a serious case with thousands of pages of evidence and the fact that this trial has now ‘cracked’. With no provision for payment of Pages of Prosecution Evidence served (PPE), the brief fee is now only £1,105 (being a category 13.1 offence). Had the trial been contested, the brief fee would not have been much better (amounting to only £1,300). Both of these derisory figures amount to a reduction in advocates fees of approximately 80% as compared to the AGFS scheme which existed pre April 2018. Moreover, the above cracked trial fee is the total payment for all preparation in this case, is of course gross and so chambers rent, clerks fees and tax will need to be paid from this amount. To add insult to injury, the four week gap in our diaries now looms large.

It is, quite frankly, an absolute scandal that these new AGFS fees were ever agreed and that criminal barristers are now being expected to work for such derisory rates.  Each and every one of us defending in this case is making it clear to you that we will no longer undertake cases which are PPE heavy.

Enough is enough!

 

Mustapha Hakme (9 Bedford Row)

Zarif Khan (Drystone Chambers)

Archangelo Power (2 Bedford Row)

Paul Firmin

Phillip Hill

Announcement: Free Representation Unit

Those who read these pages, follow on Twitter or have waded through the book will know that access to justice is a cause about which I’m prone to making a fair bit of noise. The rule of law only works if individuals have the means to enforce their rights in the courts, which is only possible if they have access to proper legal advice and representation. Not everybody, of course, can afford to pay privately for legal services, in the same way that most people cannot pay for private healthcare. This is why legal aid is often talked about in the same breath as the NHS and other pillars of the post-war welfare state. It should act as a safety net, ensuring that everybody has the ability to enforce their legal rights and that nobody is excluded from the justice system for lack of money.

Regrettably, as well we know, legal aid does not evoke the same degree of public sympathy or affection as healthcare or education. As a consequence, it has been politically possible for governments of all stripes to strip away legal aid from large swathes of the population, including many of the most vulnerable among us. The result is that often people are forced into a Sophie’s choice between representing themselves in complex legal proceedings, or simply not even trying. To lean on my favourite healthcare analogy, they are invited either to operate on themselves or just accept that they won’t get treatment.

This justice gap is why the work of pro bono legal charities is so vital. Like with food banks, we would rather live in a society where such charitable endeavours were not needed; however, for those with nowhere else to turn, pro bono units provide the safety net where the state would let people fall. And this is why I am delighted and honoured to announce that I have joined the Free Representation Unit (FRU) as a patron.

FRU was set up as a charity in 1972, and specialises in social security and employment law, providing free legal representation to clients unable to afford to pay for lawyers. Its representatives are volunteers – many of whom are trainee lawyers – and it is reliant on charitable grants and donations to fund a team of staff running the office and supervising the 500 cases it takes on each year.

At present, FRU is seeking funding to support disabled people, particularly those with mental health issues, through social security appeals tribunals, with a focus on Personal Independence Payment (PIP) appeals. A crowd-funding campaign is launched this week, with an initial target of £2,500.

If anybody reading is able to make a donation – however small – it would be hugely appreciated. I am kicking things off with a donation of my own, and we have 30 days to reach our target.

Thank you x

 

FRU says:

Any legal case is a daunting prospect for anyone, but particularly for our clients if they suffer from mental health conditions. Our recent work has seen us act for a victim of criminal violence with a split personality disorder, a client who suffers from post-concussion syndrome following an attack during the Tottenham Riots, and a victim of a violent rape now suffering from severe PTSD.

 Supporting these claimants as they re-live such traumatic events makes a huge difference to their experience of litigation and their chances of success. This means they get money to cover the costs of their disability. For our clients, the lack of Legal Aid means that they can’t afford to be represented.

 The Chairman of the Work & Pensions Parliamentary Select Committee recently said that “Claiming a benefit to which you are legitimately entitled should never be a humiliating, distressing experience. Government must move now, faster, to make this right.”

 Research with people with legal problems recently found that “The process of trying to pursue justice without legal aid added extra physical and mental strain, which may exacerbate existing physical and mental health issues or cause new ones. This was particularly noticeable for disabled participants, who found the stress of trying to resolve a welfare issue with inadequate advice made their health condition worse”.

 The benefit of legal advice is clear: people who are represented are successful in 65% of cases whereas those who are unrepresented are successful in only 45% of cases. We help our clients to get their voices heard so that decision makers truly understand their situation.

 If a tribunal agrees with the client’s benefit appeal they could receive between £22 and £145 per week in social security payments. For disabled people on a low income this could mean the difference between not leaving the house and having a life or not having to choose between heating and eating.

 By supporting FRU you would contribute to a charity that makes a clear difference to the lives of some of the poorest and most vulnerable in society.

 We represent on average two clients in a tribunal haring every working day of the year. Over a year one legal casework supervisor can support hundreds of volunteers. £2500 will enable us to pay a legal supervisor for a whole month to support our volunteers to do a great job. Raising more would keep our service going for longer.”

Guest post: Some calculations on the new Advocates’ Graduated Fee Scheme

In the latest of a series of guest blogposts looking at the consultation on the proposed new Advocates’ Graduated Fee Scheme, a contributor has offered the following calculations and comments.

 

Dishonesty

For dishonesty offences (category 6), we propose increasing the basic fees for trials, guilty pleas, and cracked trials:

  • in band 6.1 by around 5% (meaning, for example, that the basic trial fee for a leading junior would increase from £12,000 to £12,675);
  • in band 6.2 by just over 50% (meaning, for example, that the basic trial fee for a leading junior would increase from £7,500 to £11,440).; and
  • in band 6.3 by around 40% (meaning, for example, that the basic trial fee for a junior would increase from £2,000 to £2,825).

 

Band 6.1 is frauds over £10,000,000 or 20,000PPE. Band 6.2 is frauds over £1,000,000 or 10,000PPE. Band 6.3 is frauds over £100,000.

I have defended one Band 6.3 (that became a 6.2 by virtue of PPE) in 8 years and do 6.1s and 6.2s based on monetary threshold every NEVER. Those increases are also for leading juniors –  I have never been led never mind led anybody else. The frequently encountered frauds are category 6.5 (< £30,000) and are currently worth £325 on a G plea at PTPH; £450 if you manage to persuade the court to sentence on another day.

 

Drugs

For drugs offences (category 9), we propose increasing the basic fees for trials, guilty pleas, and cracked trials:

  •  in band 9.1 by just over 15% (meaning, for example, that the basic trial fee for a leading junior would increase from £7,500 to £8,700); and
  •  in band 9.4 by just over 30% (meaning, for example, that the basic trial fee for a junior would increase from £2,000 to £2,625).

 Band 9.1 is 5000 PPE or 5kg of cocaine or heroin (for when you’re representing Scarface or the Taliban), 10,000 ecstasy pills (10,000 Es? The “Madchester” scene was the early 90’s, Shaun Ryder…) or 250,000 LSD tabs (not even Keith Moon, The Jimi Hendrix Experience and the Rolling Stones combined used that much. When did you EVER do an LSD case? 1968?). This increase is also for leading juniors only.

Band 9.4 is 1,000 PPE or 1kg of heroin or cocaine (more likely to be encountered by practitioners in your regional conspiracy cases).

However the standard drugs cases we regularly encounter that have less than 1000 PPE and involve a Kinder Egg’s worth of class A or < 40kg of cannabis (yes, <40 kg) attract no increase above the current £400 for a guilty plea and sentence on the same day.

 

Junior advocates

For junior advocates, both the junior bar and solicitor advocates, we propose:

  • increasing the basic fees for trials, guilty, and cracked trials in standard cases (band 17.1) by almost 20% and the daily refresher fee by more than 15%.

 Thanks, so my guilty plea to having an offensive weapon/blade or either-way burglary now gets a massive £55 increase on a guilty plea at PTPH from £275 to £330.

  • increasing the basic fees for trials, guilty pleas, and cracked trials in a range of other offences bandings, including bands for dishonesty offences (category 6) burglary and robbery offences (category 11), firearm offences (category 12), other offences against the person (category 13), exploitation and human trafficking offences (category 14) and public order offences (category 15)

 See Table 7, Table 8 and Table 9 on page 28 for the proposed increases to cases we encounter more often:

  1. Section 47 ABH, threats to kill, s.20 GBH/wounding (all category 3.5) currently attracting a basic fee of £600 or £300 for a guilty plea at PTPH; proposed increase to basic fee of £675 or £337.50 for a guilty plea at PTPH.
  2. Frauds of <£30,000 (6.5) or <£100,000 (6.4) currently attracting a basic fee of £650 and £750 respectively; proposed increase to £800 and £1000 respectively.
  3. Indictable burglary offences (Category 11.2 only; currently a basic fee of £675 or a guilty plea at PTPH attracting £340; proposed fee of £750 or a guilty plea at PTPH attracting £375 [G plea being 50% of the basic fee – see page 15 paragraph 60].
  4. “Other offences against the person” (Category 13) is your false imprisonment/kidnap; currently basic fee of £1300, guilty plea at PTPH of £650; proposed increase to £1460 or £730 for a guilty plea at PTPH.

 

Moving several offences (harbouring an escaped prisoner, the intimidation of witnesses, the intimidation of witnesses (sic), jurors and others, and assisting offenders) out of the standard cases band at 17.1, and into the offences against the public interest band at 8.1, with the basic fees for trials, guilty pleas, and cracked trials in these cases increasing by more than 100% as a result

 Good, but how often do you do these? Just one example; In 2016-2017, the annual NOMS Digest figures showed only 4 escapes from prisons, 3 from NOMS prisoner escorts and 8 from contractor escorts making a pool of 15 possible opportunities for somebody to commit the offence of harbouring an escaped prisoner that year unless they had a vacancy in their back bedroom for somebody who remained at large from the year before…

 

Increasing the fee for ineffective trials from £300 to £350, an increase of more than 15%

 Some courts are renowned for clinging onto trials even when the wheels are coming off. We have all experienced courts that are willing to proceed in absence of the Defendant or force the Crown, when they are unable to secure witness attendance, to accept pleas to lesser offences all to avoid an adjournment and the consequential effect on MOJ statistics.

 

Increasing the fees for appeals against conviction by 20% (which would mean, for example, an increase from £250 to £300 for a junior).

 Good news for new starters.

 

And finally, we propose implementing a 1% increase to all fees for cases with a Representation Order granted on or after 1 April 2019

 £1.25 increase to my sentence fee (assuming I don’t get sentenced the same day I plead) and not enough of an increase to cover the cost of a cup of tea from the court canteen.