Is Legal Aid a luxury?

There is a perception that lawyers are too expensive

In view of Ken Clarke’s comments that we are the highest spending country in the world on legal aid, and the repeated spinning in the media how legal aid is spent on the undeserving, it is a shame we may forget why a lawyer is needed.

If you were to read and believe Matthew Hankin you would think lawyers were highly paid and superfluous individuals standing in the way of fairness and decency. Yet for many of us, the rates of pay are at the same levels or less than in 1995, eligibility has been eroded as has scope, and yet the need to be able to access a lawyer is as great as it ever was.

If you are the victim of police heavy-handedness then who is there to fight your corner? If you are falsely accused of a serious crime and cannot pay for a lawyer, surely as a society we should ensure that you have access to a competent and professional lawyer who is independent of the authorities?

The MoJ wish to reduce the numbers of lawyers. The plan to force us to compete by bidding for work, by price, has been shelved, possibly to allow the existing reforms to force more of us to the wall, allowing a small number of larger firms to gain a firmer grip before price competition cuts the already tight margins to the bones.

The amount spent on police station legal aid is down, and the spend on magistrates legal aid is at the 2001/2 levels. We already do a lot more for less.

We were paid by the hours we worked, we are now paid a fixed amount for a police station case (about £300) regardless of the hours spent travelling, waiting and actually advising someone in custody. If they are bailed to return, and interviewed again, and again, we are still paid the same fixed fee.

If they are charged, we may be able to get legal aid, but only if there are on a very low income or on benefits. In court, without all the evidence we have to identify points of law, set out the nature of any defence, deal with hearsay and bad character applications, all on the first appearance.

‘Stop Delaying Justice’ we are urged. Yet no legal aid is not a valid reason to seek time to consult a lawyer, as of course, the defendant knows if he is guilty or not.
Only the guilty seek representation, don’t they?

Again, we are paid a fixed fee for that work – maybe £230 if the person pleads guilty, up to £500 or so if there is a trial, and if the work we do is extensive we may get paid for the hours worked.

If the case goes to the Crown Court, you will get legal aid, but again, unless you are a very low income you have to pay a large contribution towards your legal costs. A minimum of £235 per month.

We are paid on the basis of the number of pages served on us, and that has bearing on the actual hours we may have to spend to prepare the case properly.

The system doesn’t serve victims any better than it serves defendants. We try our best, and are not hired hands oblivious of the damaging affects criminal activity has on individuals and communities.

We do sometimes wonder if there is a real understanding of what it is we do, and indeed why. Perhaps that is our fault. The times we are asked “you represent people accused of crime? How can you do that if you know they are guilty….”