IF THERE is such a thing as a typical day in a criminal law practice, Alistair Meldrum's begins at 8am, when he sets off on the half-hour journey to his office in Enfield, north London. His practice is maintained by a staff of 14, including an assistant solicitor, a trainee and a managing clerk.
Mr Meldrum's first jobs are opening the post and sorting out the files for that morning's magistrates' court appearances - 'anything from one to twelve cases, which will hopefully finish by lunchtime,' he says. On this particular day, he has had to wait until nearly 3 o'clock to get away from court and snatch a hasty meal of fish and chips.
'My secretary usually makes three or four appointments in the afternoon, which take me to 6 or 6.30,' he says. 'Then I start on the paperwork. On top of that, there will be phone calls during the day from police stations which have pulled in clients.'
It is usually at least 7.30 or 8pm before he leaves for the day, but work does not stop then. He is on call all night for clients who have ended up in police cells and need interviewing. Sometimes he goes himself, more often than not he delegates the task to one of his staff.
Mr Meldrum lives with his wife and two children, aged eleven and nine, in St Albans, 17 miles from his office, because he prefers to keep his family life as separate as possible. However, he believes he must advertise his home phone number. 'The police don't choose to arrest people during the working day, and clients must be able to reach me,' he says.
An additional duty is Mr Meldrum's involvement with the duty-solicitor scheme in Tottenham, where he is a member of the supervisory committee as well as being on the rota for work. This involves one weekday night every fortnight and a weekend every three months.
'If I have a grievance, it is that my own family is affected,' Mr Meldrum says. 'They rarely see me in the week and the weekends are invariably disrupted. I may plan a day out with the children, but then get a call from a police station, so either they don't go, or my wife takes them on her own. A fair rate for the work would go some way to compensate for the stress and strain on family life.'
Rates of pay for legal aid work are a thorny issue. The Lord Chancellor, in the face of sturdy opposition from the Law Society and legal aid solicitors, is intent on introducing standard fees (a fixed payment for a case, rather than an hourly rate for time spent on it), which would, Mr Meldrum suggests, cut current rates by between a quarter and a third. Ninety per cent of his clients receive legal aid.
'The powers that be haven't looked at the practical problems that the private practitioner has in running an office and paying staff competitive salaries, and counterbalancing that with earning a proper fee for the job,' he says.
Standard fees could also lead to injustices because of practitioners being pressed to take short cuts to earn a living, he believes. 'Criminal solicitors will have to become money conscious, which as a group we are not. Our main concern is the client's welfare. I can see that being slightly undermined.
'People ask me why I continue to run a criminal legal aid practice. The answer I give is that second to health, the liberty of the individual is of the most precious nature. We are the bridge between the state and the individual, and we have an extremely important role to ensure that injustices do not occur, and that the system is run in a proper, just and equitable fashion.
'I believe strongly that everyone who finds himself involved in the criminal procedure should have representation. That is why I qualified and that is what I will continue to do.'
The rising number of solicitors giving up legal aid work has increased the burden on those remaining in the field. Since 1 January, Mr Meldrum's office has opened 725 new files, 100 more than last year. Have the legal aid authorities recognised the heavier workload by speeding up payment?
'In cases where fees are under pounds 4,000, the system has got a lot better,' Mr Meldrum says. 'Bills are usually paid within two or three months. But for bills over pounds 4,000 you can still wait anything from nine months to a year.'
Not only is no interest paid, however long the payment takes, but the system also ignores the problem of mounting overdraft interest. None the less, Mr Meldrum says he does 'pretty well, considering. If I were merely in the law for the money, I would certainly not be practising in this area.'
The right for solicitors to appear in higher courts, currently under consideration by the Lord Chancellor and the senior judges, does not interest Mr Meldrum. 'I'm a traditionalist,' he says. 'I don't feel that the solicitors' profession is educated sufficiently in the rules of evidence. For me, the way forward would be to have mixed practices - barristers in partnership with solicitors. That would cut down costs for the legal aid authorities.'
He accepts that he is a 'mere voice in the wilderness'. But whatever the constraints and difficulties, he would not give up his work. 'I don't want to do anything else and it's all I really know,' he says. 'But for the amount of effort we put in, sometimes one expects a little more in return. We are a principled bunch and we do a job that many people would find unacceptable.
'We don't know when we are called out to a case whether the client will be buzzing with fleas or have Aids. The Lord Chancellor says we have grown fat on legal aid rates. What he hasn't taken into account is the hardship on family life, the hours we have to put in and the dual responsibility we owe to our clients and to the system.'
The criminal lawyer feels isolated because no one is shouting his corner, Mr Meldrum says. 'We are not asking for increases, just for the status quo to
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