Last June, I secured parliamentary time for a backbench debate on legal aid reform that the coalition was proposing to push through without any discussion or vote in parliament. I was adding my voice of opposition to that of the chair of the Supreme Court, the Law Society, the Bar Council, the Council of Her Majesty’s Circuit Judges, the Church of England, over 100 treasury counsels and many major national charities. The Government’s response to its subsequent second consultation was, sadly but unsurprisingly, to ignore us all.
In 1948 Labour established a welfare state that ensured the post-war generations would have access to key services whether they could afford to pay for them or not. This included not just health and education but access to legal justice. Chris Grayling is seeking to dismantle this settlement.
The government is cutting criminal legal aid fees on average for solicitors by 17.5 per cent and for barristers by 6 per cent. The number of duty solicitor contracts will be cut from around 1,600 to 525. To operate with such reduced fees will be impossible for small and specialised firms. It is estimated half of the 1600 criminal legal aid firms in UK will be forced to close, losing local knowledge and specialist expertise. Those that remain will be competing to provide more for less.
Has the Government looked to the United States and learned anything from their court room experience? Overloaded public defenders there defend multiple clients in several court rooms simultaneously, often first meeting their client in front of the judge and first learning the facts of the case when they begin to argue it. Unsurprisingly, their clients go to jail more often and are behind bars for longer: if found guilty in the US, you are one fifth more likely to do jail time if defended by a public lawyer rather than self-paid counsel.
The fee structures proposed by Chris Grayling could pressure clients into pleading guilty. Remember that 45 per cent of people arrested for a crime here are released without charge, not prosecuted or found innocent in court. It would be a travesty to let that 45 per cent go down and return to an era where miscarriages of justice are rife.
I qualified as a lawyer at precisely such a time. Those were the days of the Tottenham Three, Guildford Four and Birmingham Six – do we really want to see them again? This government has already cut the Crown Prosecution Services budgets by more than a quarter, leading to delays and complaints of poor quality counsel. It is cutting police funding by 20 per cent too. At the very least, the Government is creating a system where oversights and poor quality work will lead to miscarriages of justice. At its worst, it will herald the return of entrenched corruption.
What is more, these changes are just not necessary. Still the envy of the world, our legal system is the tenth cheapest in a study of 14 European legal systems. Spain, Norway, Austria and Belgium all spend more than we do. Luxembourg and Switzerland spend twice as much.
And the purported savings will be squandered by increased court costs caused by inefficient counsel. There will be longer hearings, increased adjournments and more appeals because advocates out of their depth will have to take on cases that should be above their pay grade. It costs £110 per minute to run a courtroom with a jury. Pile on those minutes with inexperienced, poor quality advocacy and the costs will pile up too.
In real terms barristers’ fees are already below those paid before 1997, when the Graduated Fee Scheme was introduced. In fact, with salaries of just £80 a day for a junior barrister attending a trial, the diverse Bar that I qualified into in 1995 is going the way of the arts: it is becoming the preserve of a metropolitan elite who rely on the bank of Mummy and Daddy.
As the profession is torn apart, we are being welcomed into easyLaw - but unlike the budget airline there is no guarantee you will reach your destination, because the plane is being flown by a rookie without support from ground control.
Only the largest and most corporate firms will survive and, thanks to Government legislation allowing companies to provide legal services, we could soon see police stations and courts staffed by G4S lawyers, the same company that bungled security provision at the Olympic Games.
By ploughing forward with his cuts without listening to such widespread criticism, Chris Grayling has snapped the balanced scales of justice in half. Labour should reverse his changes and solder them back together.
David Lammy is the Labour MP for Tottenham, and former minister for constitutional affairs