THIS IS WHAT IS HAPPENING TO HONEST HARD WORKING LEGAL AID LAWYERS, AND WHY.

The piece below is re-blogged with the permission of the Criminal Bar Association.  It is important that the government listens and upholds the Rule of Law….

 

THIS IS WHAT IS HAPPENING TO HONEST HARD WORKING LEGAL AID LAWYERS, AND WHY.


We received this yesterday, 11th June, before the Justice Select Committee hearing, and before Lord McNally’s “hysterical” outburst on Law in Action, in an admirable interview by @joshuarozenberg.

Then this morning, Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail attacks the “ashtray” voice of Michael Turner QC, and the “Biker” Lucy Scott Moncrieff whilst railing about legal aid lawyers in sharp suits on £200 per hour.

Who knows how far into the public arena this blog reaches? This post is certainly not one likely to feature in the Mail, as they do not have the wit or the guts to publish anything that offends against their slavish toadying to the likes of Grayling and his ilk.

If you sense anger in this introduction you are right. Far too much of what appears below strikes personal chords with your editor, as indeed it will with the vast majority of those practitioners who remain.

You will not find it easy reading. it is a courageous and heartfelt account of someone of whom the Bar, AND THE PUBLIC WE SERVE should be proud. I certainly am.

It’s not about the money, it’s about the loss of the finest, (and NOT the most expensive) Justice System in the world. lose the dedicated practitioners and you lose everything upon which it depends.

It brings nothing but shame on the heads of the likes of Grayling, McNally, Bob Neill and others.

Please read it to the end. It is entirely unedited. Some of the words I might not have chosen but it is not my business to do so in this case.

Then sign the petition in the unlikely event that you have not done so already.

And spread it around!

“When I was 14, I was an overweight, short loser who spent his weekends performing amateur dramatics.

I hated my time at school because I was unpopular and because I had a complete mental block when it came to any mathematical or scientific.

One week, my school organised a mock court case and a number of us were assigned various roles. I was asked to be a barrister and to argue a particular case.

A relative of mine was a barrister. On the night before the “case”, he helped me put together my argument – we spent the evening in his study looking at practitioner text books and case law – and the next morning I stood up and delivered my first set of submissions. I won.

In fact, I didn’t just win – I wiped the floor with my opponents. One by one, they stood up and said that they had nothing to say in response to me. I had found something that I enjoyed and that I appeared to be good at (albeit with a lot of help from a secret source). I knew that I wanted to be a barrister.

Throughout the following years of A-levels and a university degree, I set about taking various mini-pupillages in different areas of law and in different cities. I saw every type of work from large scale enquiries to a slip and trip case involving a supermarket floor but it was very quickly apparent that there was only one subject for me – crime.

It was so exciting. On my first day of my first criminal mini-pupillage, I went down into the cells of a Crown Court to meet a notorious gangster charged with an attempted murder in a nightclub with a shotgun. The barrister told me that I should sit closest to the door in case “it kicked off”. This was – perhaps – the single most exciting thing that I had ever heard. I loved everything else that I saw in the Crown Court and I knew that this was what I wanted to do with my life. I could not think of anything better in the world than to stand up and address a jury on behalf of a defendant charged with a criminal offence.

I took my degree at a very good red brick university. The vast majority of my fellow law students had their hearts set on a training contract with a magic circle firm of solicitors in the City. They thought that anything else was a failure but I couldn’t think of anything worse. I knew that I would not earn a fortune but I knew what I wanted and I was proud to say that I wanted to practise criminal law in “the provinces”. I remember, in my first year at university, one girl sitting on my bed in my halls of residence and telling me that I was “mad” to throw away the chance to try and get a training contract with a big firm (in fact she was so unimpressed that this remained the full extent of anything that happened with her on my bed).

That conversation took place 14 years ago.

If, during that conversation in 1999, I had been able to see my diary of professional bookings for 2013 I would have been confident that I had made the right choice. This is an anonymous post so I have no need to exaggerate the work that I do. My diary for the fortnight in which I write will give you a decent idea. I am doing the following cases:
- A complicated proceeds of crime case;
- A large scale fraud involving international businesses;
- Two large multi-handed Class A drug conspiracies involving thousands of pages of evidence;
- Two cases involving allegations of historic sexual abuse and rape

One of the above is for trial and the others are being heard for sentence or legal argument. Scattered around them are various other conferences and court hearings for everything from burglary to Section 18 assault.

This is not the greatest criminal practice in the world but it isn’t bad for somebody of my call and it compares favourably to most people around town.

This sort of work goes has consequences. I work all the time. A typical day for me starts at 6:00am when I get up to fit in an hour’s worth of work before my little toddler wakes up and demands a thousand different things at once. I am often too busy working to be able to see him.
I will then spend the day at court – an incredibly draining experience if you are involved in a serious trial in the Crown Court – before coming home. If I make it home to see my wife and child, I am usually so tired that I am grumpy and of little assistance to either of them. Once the little man is in bed, I rarely make it past 8:30pm before falling asleep on the sofa. At about 9:30pm, I then go back upstairs to my study and work until the small hours – I usually have 4 – 5 hours sleep but I often have less.

I used to wear all of the hard work as a badge of pride. I did a job which was respected and – I don’t mind admitting it – was well paid. I wasn’t paid mega-bucks and I didn’t have an extravagant lifestyle but I was paid enough that I felt that it was worth putting in the hours that I did.

I was so happy in my work that I couldn’t wait to tell people about it – I would bore people to death with stories of cases that I had been involved in. I would relish the chance to go out with the rest of the criminal team for a meal to swap anecdotes and tell war stories. In my first few years at the bar, I really did feel that I was living my dream.

That all seems very far away now.

Governments of all colours have shown an utter contempt for the criminal justice system. With one hand they have significantly increased the workload going through the system whilst on the other hand they have slashed the resources available. The sad fact is that both crown and magistrates courts are now badly run shambles where undervalued people (barristers; court staff; solicitors; judges; interpreters) grope their way through a bewildering series of reforms whilst not being given the resources to deal with things properly.

For my own part (and this is why this is an anonymous post) I am broke.
I cannot afford to pay my mortgage; I cannot afford to put petrol in my car; I cannot afford to pay my tax bills.
In the past 6 weeks I have received such a pathetic sum into my personal bank account that we are only able to cover (some of) the bills because my wife has a regular income. I have only been able to buy food for my family in the past month by spending the paltry sum that I had put aside to meet my tax bill. It is all gone now.
When I hear newspapers and politicians discuss “fat cat lawyers” who “feather their nests with legal aid” I can only laugh – I genuinely do not know how I am going to get to Court tomorrow morning and I do not know when I will next be paid.

The stress of the job; the sleepless nights and my financial situation have taken their toll. I now suffer from depression.
Some days I can’t get out of bed and go to my son if he is crying. Some days I lie on the kitchen floor and sob for no reason. Some days I shout at my wife because I feel as though my chest is going to explode and I have to find some sort of release. Some days I think about killing myself.
A few months ago I left Court, got changed out of my robes and – before I made it to my car – had a panic attack in the middle of the street. I got home and just fell asleep in the middle of the bedroom floor before waking up shaking and crying.

I know that I am not alone. The sad fact is that financial hardship and anxiety are a common experience for many members of the criminal legal profession. I have never known the mood of the bar and solicitors to be so low and this is all before Chris Grayling introduces his cuts and his devastating, evil reforms.

I’ve had enough.

I am quitting the criminal bar and finding something else to do – something which will pay the bills and give me some peace. I am not going to wait for another 20% cut in my fees. I am not going to wait to see just how bad it gets in court when Eddie Stobart is representing defendants. I am off.

I should imagine that I am precisely the sort of person that the government would quite like to remain at the bar. I am trusted by the CPS to prosecute serious crime – I have helped to convict murderers; rapists and drug dealers. There is a decent chance that I might have made it on to the bench one day to help run the courts. Perhaps I wouldn’t but I imagine that I am a better prospect than whoever G4S will find to conduct their cases for them.

I am not entirely sure what the purpose of this post is. I suppose that I just wanted to get this off my chest and know that somebody would hear it. Others have written persuasively and powerfully in the debate over Grayling’s reforms and I make no attempt at careful, considered argument – I just wanted to know that somebody had said how things really are.

Good luck.

Sign the petition: http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/48628

P.S. The girl on my bed is now filthy rich and splits her time between Dubai and a very large house in the home counties. I imagine that she does not write blogs about me

 

16 thoughts on “THIS IS WHAT IS HAPPENING TO HONEST HARD WORKING LEGAL AID LAWYERS, AND WHY.

  1. wow do I understand you or do I? Listen mate – Same old same old here too. I dumped Legal Aid 11 years ago and it was the best decision I ever made. Forget this rubbish and remould into a specialist and very expensive lawyer. It takes hard work but as a lawyer you will not mind that. Leave the publicly funded rubbish for those willing to work for £60 a day. I now charge £250 and hour and when the client is £1 in arrears I shut the file. I was not born to drag this hopeless Gov or save society. I was born to make me and my family happy and if the system can’t admire me then the system can go drown.. see ya’

    • Thanks counsel – I appreciate you are angry about this. We all are and in addition to anger we are insulted too. My personal story was not all that different to the one posted above. I too discovered a passion for law where I had no passion for anything else. I spent 13 years in a Legal Aid practice working 16-18 hour days 7 days a week. I used to scurry around the whole country representing people from Liverpool to Havant. I put myself at the beck and call of my job and my clients. Took police station call outs 24/7 and still did a days work and more. I was dedicated and loved my job. Challenge after challenge of the LSC was met and dealt with by us all. I clearly recall the good old ‘audit’ and the 14 days of non-stop work that went into preparing. The Duty solicitor route tests, the sleepless nights and crowds of 30+ clients waiting in reception just to see me. Loved it all and at the time I was an employed solicitor on a modest income. But by 2002 I realised that the system was going the way of the Gov, down the tubes. Good law firms were being shut down and intervened. Cases were being paid retrospectively and I was negotiating barristers to attend my hearings for peanuts and then not paying them, for 12+ months because LSC was witholding funds.

      Let us not forget I am a lawyer first and not an accountant or an auditor. I was damn good at what I did for a living and immensely popular among clients and colleagues and the judiciary. How many solicitors would get invited into Judges chambers during a trial for lunch? I had a flair for advocacy and did it all myself whenever possible (indeed I still do). The story above could well be my own. But there came a time when I had to choose. I did not enter law to be a public defender at least not unless I was to be paid appropriately. The belief that you can take advantage of well educated, trained and abitious people who are excellent at what they do and pay them a pittance is a socialistic British phenomena and not one that I can tolerate. I am happy to work myself to the ground but I expect fair pay. Without that I take the exit. Lawyers in England need to understand that by playing ball with the whims of the LSC and the latest chimpanze in Downing Street they uphold the system which merely takes advantage of us. If only lawyers would band together and pull the plug on the whole legal aid system then Gov would fast realise what we do. That of course will never happen as there will always be some fool willing to work for a pittance thinking that they are progressing themselves or society etc etc. When will the rest realise that those are the fools that this system wants to attract. Nobody cares whether you do a good job or a bad job under legal aid. Just tick the boxes, fill the forms, cover your back and bill. The Gov is happy to be able to say that they are supposedly upholding the Rule of Law, that Human Rights are addressed – hey look we have a Legal Aid system – whilst simultaneously using the gutter press, headed by the lavatorial Daily Mail, to discredit criminals, prisoners, immigrants, benefits claimers, blacks, muslims, eastern europeans and lawyers. The list goes on and on. Can you not see that this is all a big game and you are the pawn and you are the soldier and the eventual loser. If the system cannot respect you for what you are then it’s your call what you do – stay on and sell yourself cheap or decide who comes first. I strongly suggest you take a holiday over Stateside and see how our compatriot lawyers live there. I did not spend 12 years studying (LLB, LLM and LLD plus LSF and training) to be paid £100 gross for spending 8 hours in a police cell. I spent my time crying and having sleepless nights waking up screaming with palpitations and avoiding bailiffs and asking myself what I had done wrong to be such a failure after working so hard. I’m not sorry that my view offends your social opinions and I stick by every word and my advice to all legal aid lawyers is use your talents somewhere they will be appreciated, even if it’s bringing up the kids and gardening at home. I am not angry at what the Gov is doing, I am livid and my response is a firmly raised index finger…

  2. The sad truth is that we are headed towards an American style legal system where the incompetent oik, just out of Uni advises the client to accept a plea bargain or suffer a long sentence, even if they are innocent.

    Something similar happened recently. SAS Sgt Danny Nightingale was advised by the Judge in his case that if he pleaded guilty he would be treated leniently, even though Sgt Nightingale did not import the weapon to the UK or place it in his quarters, where it was later found by the Police.

    If you pay for Bargain Bucket defence, you get Bargain Bucket sentences. The Government is reducing everything to the lowest cost possible and in the process making a mockery of a once much lauded justice system.

    Sgt Nightingale pleaded guilty as suggested, but then received a heavy sentence (since overturned on appeal). The Bargain Bucket Judge brought the judiciary into disrespect by attempting to dishonour one of Britain’s finest.

    I weep for the future where the poor are shovelled into debtors prisons because they cannot pay their parking tickets or have poor credit ratings. I suspect that Tesco or G4 or the banks are salivating at the prospects of the money they will earn from legal services provided by a junior on his first year out of Uni or some para-legal newly recruited from a Job-Centre near you!

  3. David Game – that is much more interesting than your first post.

    I am merely trying to help spread the word. See my ‘About’ section

    But – thank you for your second comment.

  4. thanks charon – keep banging that drum.

    my one question is ‘what are we going to do?’ and i can’t see any good answer (apart from david game’s, which like you i hate and completely understand – not a comment on the person making that choice at all). of course nobody owes any of us a living, but the ‘reforms’ (yeah right – that reminds me, i must remember to get the mower out this weekend and reform the grass) will make it impossible for people other than the classic fat cat stereotypes to earn a living. do we as a society need competent lawyers in areas other than commercial law? i believe so, but many seem not to. even on the guardian boards you encounter the usual ‘fuck all the parasite lawyers’ level of debate.

    grayling asked for alternatives (great, we can do HIS job too now). i believe possibilities have been suggested but we need to put forward a cogent suggestion from the whole profession. i mean he gave us a couple of weeks to work on it, what more could we need?

    you know what i’m going to say next don’t you… the levy on all legal bills, whatever %age is needed to fund a sensible, properly-costed legal aid system paying living wages to those it employs (and maybe paying them inside 12 months if at all possible… he chuntered bitterly).

    wouldn’t it work? (it’s not a rhetorical question – i can’t believe something so simple hasn’t been suggested by someone cleverer than me). the legal profession’s own insurance premium tax.

  5. It’s an atrocious situation and one with which I’m only too familiar from the experience of colleagues in my former chambers. I hacked my way around the mags of the south east lucky to be paid from one month to the next, and that was back in the late 90s/early 2000s. It was bad enough then – it’s unthinkable now. I hope you manage to find a better way forward. However much I miss addressing juries and the like, I know I’m better out of it.

  6. This a tragic story and, if Grayling gets his way, it will be multiplied numerous times. I am afraid that I see this coalition government (and probably the Opposition also) as having a much more sinister agenda. Bear in mind the financial context is one in which £100bn will be OK for Trident and the bloated oversease aid budget is ring-fenced. In this context we see several strands:

    1. Attacks on decisions of the judiciary – even the most senior judiciary
    2. Attacks on the European Convention on Human Rights (E Conv HR)
    3. Possible withdrawal of the UK from the E Con HR
    4. Likelihood of withdrawal from the European Union
    5. A crackdown on the media …. will develop from Leveson
    6. Protection of the government from judicial review
    7. Reduction of civil legal aid under LASPO 2012
    8. The Grayling proposals for criminal legal aid (and other items).

    It is clear than British politicians are setting themselves up to become a controlling elite with the average citizen having few rights. The politicians – generally, these days, very wealthy people – are also setting up a system in which they and their rich mates get even richer.

    One can entirely see the point of the lawyer who is giving up the uneven struggle. If he can do better financially out of it then he will do what he has to. It is also possible to see the point made by David Game – why not give up legal aid work and do something else BUT, I suspect, the problem is that to do so is not easy and one has to earn in the meantime.

    Anomalous brings Sgt. Nightingale into this but how does it fit? The court-martial judge’s actions attracted the criticism of the LCJ. Provided that the judiciary remains truly independent then the judges will act to secure a fair trial with an appellate process to correct errors. The cuts to legal aid might well impact in the longer term on the quality of the judiciary – a point raised by many of the consultation responses.

    • Obiter – for the record I gave up LA in 2002, between 2002 and 2003 I suffered some hardship, between 2003 and late 2007 I was effectively penniless, reliant on credit cards and parents for all my needs, in mortgage arrears, bailiffs chasing council tax, furniture loans and car. I used to buy £5 of petrol on my credit card! I started my ‘redevelopment’ in about 2006, bought some website design books and started making myself a cracking website and a blog and charged people £70 p/h. Many clients never paid in full (or even in part) but things started scraping together. I was good at what I did so results spoke for themselves. Then in 2007 I got my lucky break and in 2009 I trebled my fees. Now people come to me because I have reputation for getting the job done and a very good success rate thrown in – moral of the story – if a tosser like me can qualify as a lawyer and do all these things – so can anybody else. It was damn hard, almost cost me my marriage and did cost me my sanity as I was receiving treatment for depression for 4 years, then I took to drink and combo of pills and other things. All in all mate – it was crap. But one thing I knew was that I am no good at anything else so I better learn how to earn a living on my own. Whilst I did this good friends shut their practices and bought KFC franchises and open pizza shops. They are still struggling but overall they don’t regret. It’s a laugh when I visit them at the shop and see my formerly suited mate, with a paper hat and rolling a pizza. But he bakes a decent quattro stagione

      Fraser – If you want to see how the system will work look closely at the current court interpreter system. My interpreter friends were earning £2-£3k p/m. Now they are on £8 an hour and taking home £940 a month gross. The contract holder gets millions£ and skimps on all levels of service, fails to meet demands and takes on the least qualified and able people for the job. Judges are fuming, Ministers are pretending to fume and lawyers are laughing whilst clients are sitting in cells facing weeks of delays. Does anyone care – not a totti matey.

      Perceived Policy: Who needs fat cat interpreters and lawyers with Porsches (is that how it;s spelt?) Chubby Judges pensions and cushy prisons full of Eastern European (and generally Eastern looking folk) immigrants. Why don’t we just scrap the criminal justice system altogether, arm the police with automatic rifles and shoot to kill in the first instance. Dump the Human Rights farce and bring back public executions, flogging and pits – 2013 is the year of No Dogs, No Irish and No Muslims I say mate (except guide dogs) – introduce a new nationality test based on skin tone alone and deport the rest of them darki weirdos all somewhere far away but within bombing range (we keep the Indians cos they make decent curries and the Jamaicans dance and laugh a lot). What do you say about that for an idea My Davood Cameroon-nejad.

      Real Policy: Slash costs where the public don’t care and then when it all goes pear shaped we will have retired with our Knighthoods and be kipping in the Lords Terrace Bar and the new bunch of Downing Street thugs can blame it all on us. Who cares – it’s a merry go round and they are handing out cigars – pretend you care about NHS, blame the immigrants on needing to spend more on police and nuclear weapons and slash spending on legal aid, immigration, benefits, prisons, bus passes and oh yeh – you know all those lawyer tossers we are no longer paying – dont forget to tax tax tax and re-tax them. Reassess their tax returns until they bugger off!!!

      Current Government policy and rankings is based on what we economists commonly refer to as the ‘Shit House Principle’ – that is – the biggest lumps always float on top!

      ref – index finger still raised firmly (although getting crampy) – off to get myself a fresh brew cappucino and check the share prices

  7. If everybody is paid so badly, and works such long hours, how on earth are the G4Ss and Eddie Stobarts going to make money as contractors ? No private firm is going to bid if there is no hope of profit, but where does the profit come from ? They have to employ lawyers and these will have to be those doing the job now, so if they exeat stage left, where do the staff come from; they have to pay reasonable wages surely ?

  8. Fraser, the G4S & Eddie Stobarts of this world will employ lawyers, but not the ones practising right now. Whilst the brightest students will be recruited for civil practise, the dross will end up doing criminal work.

    I would have thought that the para-legals, fresh from the job centre with only a few weeks training will attend the arrested & magistrates court, leaving the hard pressed lawyers who only managed to qualify with a Douglas to carry them through to trial at Crown court.

    As with all things, only those with money will obtain true justice. Judges will only be recruited from the ranks of the civil bar, whilst prosecuting counsel will be chosen depending on the value of the case to the State. If there is a reasonable chance of proceeds of crime being applied and recovered, then the finest prosecutor will nail the defendant to the cross, unless he can afford a decent silk.

    It’s going to be entirely about money and the poor will not have access to justice. Not unless they win the lottery.

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