The Government's case for legal aid cuts does not stand up to cross examination

Our legal system is still - just about - the envy of the world. Not for long

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The Independent Online

In court I am used to cross-examining witnesses. Sometimes a witness tries to pull the wool. Usually they do that if they have some sort of agenda, and the simple truth will not serve it. So when a spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice, which is trying to force through changes to legal aid, said this week:

“At around £2bn a year we have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world. At a time when everyone has to tighten their belts, we can no longer close our eyes to the fact legal aid is taxpayers' money and it is costing too much”

I can’t cross examine the spokesperson. But I can report that six of us – and I’ll tell you more about the six of us in a moment – felt sufficiently shocked by this to decide to go public and try to put it right.

You see the Ministry want the public to think lawyers don’t care about costs. Previously they’ve said legal aid costs are ‘spiraling’. In fact, like the witness trying to pull the wool, this is misleading and dangerously so. The truth? Spending on our Criminal Justice System has fallen for a number of years. In the last five years it’s fallen from £1.12bn to £975m and the cost of the most expensive category of cases has halved (from £124m to £67m).

As for our system being expensive compared to other countries – this line has been peddled before, though the Ministry knows it’s wrong. It’s wrong because our system is different from other countries – it’s ‘adversarial’. So our legal aid budget pays for things that in other countries are transferred to other budgets. The true and fair way of making the comparison – don’t take it from me, take it from the 2012 EC report on ‘Efficiency of Justice’ – shows that out of 14 European legal systems, we are tenth when you look at legal spend per inhabitant. Behind amongst others, Spain, Norway, Austria and Belgium. Behind Luxembourg and Switzerland – which is twice as expensive.  This is not news to the Ministry. They know that. So why the spin?   What’s wrong with telling it how it is?

That same spokesperson had another line:-

“Our proposals would have more of an impact on those earning the most from legal aid – for example under our proposals a criminal barrister earning £530,000 would still receive around £430,000.”

Question: ‘Have you chosen those figures because they represent some sort of average earning for a criminal barrister?  Or are you trying to mislead the public into thinking that? Your own figures show that in fact a barrister is likely to earn less than £30,000pa from criminal legal aid. The cuts are across the board.’

In court you expect a defendant cynically to attempt to mislead a jury. But do you expect cynicism of that sort from our Ministry of Justice? Is that what we are to expect nowadays – the Ministry of Justice, for heaven sake - misleading the public for short term political expediency?

The fact is that barristers have been making serious suggestions to Minister Grayling, as to how he can make significant savings. He rejects them in favour of his plan to slash fees to barristers. Fees which have already been cut - not by two or three per cent - but by 35 per cent over the last six years.

The effect of cuts does not just fall on barristers. Outstanding and talented law students are discouraged from practicing in the criminal law, with the inevitable dip in future quality. To you who live blameless lives, the quality of justice will not be a concern. But to many, and to victims of crime, one day it will be. And it’ll be too late.

Our Criminal Justice System is still, just about, the envy of the world. Not at this rate. Not for long.  

Mr Grayling as Lord Chancellor is responsible for protecting our justice system.  That is not done when a spokesperson delivers irresponsible propaganda that deceives the public.

Who are the six barristers I referred to? We are the country’s Circuit Leaders – the leaders of the barristers’ profession.  We are individuals, and you should know who we are: Alistair MacDonald QC,  Leader North Eastern Circuit; Gregory Bull QC,  Leader Wales and Chester Circuit; Mark Wall QC, Leader Midlands Circuit; Andrew Langdon QC, Leader Western Circuit; Rick Pratt QC , Leader Northern Circuit; Sarah Forshaw QC,  Leader South Eastern Circuit.

We are six people with a bit of experience. We are entrusted to prosecute and defend some of the most serious cases in the country.     

We know that in criminal trials some witnesses will try to pull the wool. When they do, we try to show it up.

Andrew Langdon QC was called to the Bar 27 years ago. He prosecutes and defends complex cases including gang murders and high-level fraud