Not all lawyers are coining it, and it’s right to stand up to Chris Grayling’s misguided ‘reforms’

Legal aid needed reining in, but not to this extent

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Barristers going on strike? The legal profession’s top earners withdrawing their labour and disrupting court cases across the land? How can this bewigged elite possibly expect any public sympathy?

Well, hang on a second. While it’s been obvious for some time that the criminal legal aid budget has been escalating out of control and needed reining in, the savage cuts disguised as “reforms” are proposed without any real thought to the consequences both to those subject to the criminal process as well as to those representing them. That they are being pushed through by a Justice Secretary with no legal background says it all.

At the bottom end crime has never paid particularly well for those who practise in this field of law, with payment at rates that your average plumber or electrician (both worthy occupations) would scorn. It’s not easy work and can involve unsociable hours that your GP long ago gave up undertaking, but it’s necessary to ensure that people who fall foul of the criminal justice system are dealt with fairly.

The protesters are simply demanding reasonable payment for the work they do. Chris Grayling’s suggestion that all the solicitors and barristers involved were doing very nicely thank you is disingenuous. The truth, more prosaically, and mirroring what’s happening in society generally, is that those at the top, the big firms and the QC’s, have been earning handsome amounts from the public purse charging top dollar for their invaluable services whilst the footsloggers at the bottom have been squeezed to breaking-point.

A fairer spread of the available resources involving reasonable cuts would seem to me to be the obvious answer but it’s just easier, as well as deeply hypocritical, for this banker-protecting government to portray all lawyers as greedy leeches when the reality is of course completely different. There’s simply no comparison between the earnings of the average “high-street” solicitor doing a mix of work including some legal aid and those of our brethren in their steel and glass fortresses in the City helping the bankers and big companies do their commerce. It’s like comparing Jones the Grocer with Tesco’s, and for firms who have traditionally relied on a high proportion of publicly-funded work the future is bleak.

We are already seeing the consequences of the withdrawal of legal aid from Family law, the area I specialise in.  People are now having to represent themselves and are struggling to cope with procedures they don’t understand. This causes delays and strain on an already-overstretched system; a similar scenario in the Criminal courts is not an unlikely prospect.

Nonetheless I sadly suspect that the public will be taken in by the Government’s rhetoric since let’s face it the (mostly) young robed barristers demonstrating outside courts have a hard job to overcome the perception of their more senior colleagues creaming off hundreds of thousands in high-profile cases, something which isn’t too far from the truth albeit the exception rather than the norm.

When I was doing legal aid work I never felt I was entitled to a living from the public purse, being able to charge less than a third of my private rate. I did it because I felt I owed it to society and that’s what drives the footsloggers at the bottom. I wish them success in their fight but fear their cause is doomed.