We’ve become used to cost-cutting changes to each branch of the welfare state. It barely makes the news now when they announce that the library service will be merged with the Navy, or lollipop ladies will be replaced by Subbuteo figures. So it was inevitable that they’d get round to legal aid.
One change they’ve come up with is that instead of a defendant seeking a legal-aid lawyer, the case will be put out to tender, and whoever offers to do it for the cheapest gets the job. And the first company offering to supply these extra-cheap lawyers is Eddie Stobart, the haulage people. To be fair, in some cases this makes perfect sense. For example, should a case revolve around whether there’s a back route that cuts out the bottleneck between Walsall and junction 3 of the M6, clearly Eddie is your man.
Even more efficiently, another company eager to provide cut-price lawyers is G4S, the security firm that also has the contract to transfer convicted prisoners from the courtroom to the jail. So the G4S lawyer can tell their client: “The guilty verdict may be slightly disappointing, but the good news is you’re being taken to the slammer by my colleague Dave who’s a right laugh, so it’s worked out quite well, all in all.”
Maybe G4S can offer a discount if the same person does both jobs, saying: “I’ve brought the witness statements, and I’ve got the handcuffs in case I arse it up, so, either way, I’m prepared.”
The Government insists that the new system won’t affect the quality of legal services, as price makes no difference with the law. And you can see that from the way wealthy people choose their lawyers. Rebekah Brooks won’t bother with an expensive one; she’ll wait until the week before the trial and ring the first lawyer she sees in the Yellow Pages. Or maybe when she has an antique delivered, she’ll ask the driver who comes to the door: “You don’t fancy doing a bit of defence-counsel work on the side, do you?”
Michael Jackson and O J Simpson were the same. They had enough on their plate as it was, without the worry of paying for costly lawyers, so they got whoever would promise to borrow a suit and turn up for 50 quid.
It’s a novel approach to economics, this idea that price makes no difference to quality. Maybe it’s the same with everything, so the quality of a house has nothing to do with its price. Look around a bit and a 90-acre estate in Buckinghamshire can actually be cheaper than a two-up, two-down demolished terrace in Aleppo. Minister Chris Grayling has explained that the new system won’t do any harm, saying: “I don’t believe most people who find themselves in our criminal-justice system are great connoisseurs of legal skills.” Because, as we know, people who are accused of something are idiots. To be fair to Chris Grayling, the only people he’s likely to have come across who have been accused of a crime are Jeffrey Archer, Jonathan Aitken and Andy Coulson, but he probably shouldn’t generalise too much from that.
One effect of allotting a lawyer according to who’s cheapest is that no one on legal aid will be able to seek a lawyer with specialist knowledge in any area. This should provide all sorts of fun, as a defendant wrongly accused of a bank robbery finds his lawyer saying: “Don’t worry, I’ve been to court before. Most of my cases involved driving in a bus lane, but the thing with law courts is, while the details change from case to case, the principles are pretty much the same.”
They could save even more money by widening the professions that can bid for the job. Snooker referees, for example, are used to adjudicating on whether a player brushed the white ball with their waistcoat, so why not let them use these skills in a case of grievous bodily harm?
Another change is that, under the new system, the lawyer will receive a fixed fee whether the defendant is found guilty or not guilty. So, seeing as winning a not guilty verdict involves compiling evidence and other tedious tasks, whereas securing a guilty verdict involves getting the client to plead guilty, it could be argued that it will be in the lawyer’s interest not to bother all that much. It’s like a builder being paid the same whether he rebuilds your kitchen, or says: “Bloody hell that’s a right mess in there. I’d write it off and get takeaways from now on if I was you.”
Then there’s the rule that no one will be entitled to legal aid unless they can prove that they’ve been legally resident in the UK for 12 months. So women who’ve been illegally trafficked here will be disqualified. That will teach them to sponge off the state.
The whole scheme is to reduce a legal-aid bill that’s stayed the same for 10 years, and curb “fat-cat lawyers”, because the average wage of a legal-aid lawyer in 2009 was £25,000. At last the Government is pursuing the people swiping the nation’s wealth, instead of hounding beleaguered search-engine companies trying to make ends meet by putting a couple of billion aside for their old age.