Law Review: Justice on the cheap

Paul Mendelle QC, Chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, said today in The Times that there are not too many barristers, there are too many laws and that Jack Straw’s plan to cut legal aid by 18% would lead to members of the Criminal bar earning less than a car mechanic. He went on to say that unless barristers are paid more we are going to end up with a second tier service and injustice – which will cost a lot more in the long term. His letter, as one would expect from an advocate, is tightly drawn and makes a number of ‘politically persuasive’ points.  It is worth reading.

At first blush, this view is not going to elicit any sympathy whatsoever from members of the public. I could add that some members of the public would be more than happy to have cheaper, or even better – no trials, ‘bang villains up’ in a prison with no TV and no amenities and ‘throw away the key’ – but that would be  facile.

Or is it?  The fact of the matter is that criminal law is in the public sector domain, paid for by tax payers – and the legal sector will be subject to the same cuts as the rest of the tax payer funded economy in the coming years. While it is certainly true that a number of leading QCs have managed to relieve the tax payer of £0.5 – 1 million for criminal law work – they are a very small majority – a minority Jack Straw is quite happy to brief about for political election advantage.  Frankly, The Tories are even quieter about their plans for Law than they are on the economy – but I can’t see a Tory government rushing to do anything other than provide more and cheaper prison places and cut the costs of banging the villains up in the first place. I have seen nothing from Conservative CCHQ or Mr Grieve to persuade me otherwise.

While there will be some ‘villains’ or those charged with serious criminal offences who are able to pay to hire the ‘best briefs’ – they are not, in the criminal sector, in the majority. Big business will always pay lawyers more for advice – but even they are now railing against some of the fees charged by the big City firms. Family lawyers specialising in the rarified atmosphere of relieving popular music stars and footballers of large fees for advising them on the ‘financial arrangements’ following divorce, enjoy lavish fees compared to family lawyers dealing at the lower end of the economic pyramid – it was ever thus.  The market rules – but you don’t always get what you pay for, simply because of the professionalism of the lawyers involved in tax payer funded criminal law who provide a high quality service and advice for little money.   It is right that Mr Mendelle raises these issues but, I suspect, until the country is out of the financial ‘merde’, barristers, as with others, will just have to wait in line for the good times to return… unless they wish to retrain as plumbers and car mechanics or become Unite sponsored British Airways cabin crew and go into  far more lucrative sectors.

I did enjoy this passage from Mr Mendelle’s letter to the Times…

There aren’t too many barristers but there certainly are too many laws. Too many ill-considered and appallingly drafted laws are passed, as one bloated Bill after another is extruded from the sausage factory that Parliament has become. It is not barristers who drive up the cost of legal aid but the increases in the numbers of those prosecuted and jailed, a good few for crimes that never existed until this Government created them.”

He’s probably right – but, in these difficult days at least there are more crimes for people to commit.  What would we do if villains and NuLabour criminals didn’t oblige by breaking the law? If you are a student thinking of a career in the criminal law field – you now know what the score is.  Cabin doors to manual?

3 thoughts on “Law Review: Justice on the cheap

  1. A thoughtful post, Charon.

    I am personally in dread of either of the two BIG buggers grabbing power because the axe will swing regardless; it is the extent to which cuts are made, and where, which are of greatest concern with the health service, and the law being sitting ducks. These cuts wont represent a problem for the cosseted wealthy, but , as ever, the common man will be squeezed for all he is worth, and get little by way of return…..

  2. Mr Mendelle said – ” …. It is not barristers who drive up the cost of legal aid but the increases in the numbers of those prosecuted and jailed, a good few for crimes that never existed until this Government created them.”

    Most people would agree that we have far too many criminal offences. However, the VAST majority of offences are dealt with either by out-of-court disposals or by the magistrates’ courts. In the latter case, most people will NOT qualify for a legal representation order. Hence, one could conclude that it is NOT the numbers being prosecuted which is driving up the cost of criminal legal aid.

    Of course, the reduction in legal aid in magistrates’ courts (and the legal aid system now coming into the Crown Courts) will result in little criminal work for lawyers before the courts. This means that young lawyers will not gain experience or, at best, will take a very long time to gain experience. This cannot auger well for the future.

    I am sure that you are right in saying that there will not be any rapid return to more legal representation and, more likely, there will never be. It does not matter which party is in power on this point.

    The future is very uncertain and public money for lawyers is going to be in extremely short supply. Therefore, apart from perhaps exceptionally difficult cases, can we continue funding QCs and Juniors in criminal cases? I would doubt it. We will be in the financial guano for a generation or more to come.

  3. On a separate note, I went to a Law Society CPD on the cuts to civil legal aid about six months ago and they brought up an indication by Mr Grieve that they promised there’d be no further cuts.

    Since when did lawyers start trusting politician’s election puffs?

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