‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’ – Martin Luther King – Letter from a Birmingham Jail – 16 April 1963.
Having already successfully stripped legal aid from so many areas of civil work, the government is now bearing down on criminal legal aid. ‘Price Competitive Tendering’ (or PCT) is one of the latest ‘in phrases’ but what does it amount to?
Stripped to its essentials, it means that anyone charged with an offence and who requires legal aid – (that is, most people) – will be allocated a defence lawyer working for one of a small number of large ‘defence factory’ commercial providers.
This lawyer will earn money by case turnover and so will not want to spend too much time on your case and the temptation to advise clients to plead guilty and get it over with will be there.
Does this matter given that anyone charged with anything serious these days is ‘obviously guilty’ and classed in the media as a ‘scumbag criminal’ before the case has even got near a court of law, never mind it being actually proved to a jury of our peers? Well it should matter. Make no mistake: the person charged could be you. A moment’s inadvertence when driving which has massive and tragic consequences for someone else. A false accusation made by a jealous work colleague. An ill-advised ‘tweet’ posted in a moment of sheer frustration – remember Paul Chambers and the Robin Hood Airport tweet?
If this happens you could find yourself lambasted in the media (which usually only has interest in headlines). You could be remanded into custody or, at best, on bail for a long time probably with restrictive bail conditions while the police take what will seem like forever to investigate the case. Your family life could well be devastated and you will soon know who your true friends are. You could lose your job. So, yes – it does matter to each and everyone of us. If it happens you will be more than grateful for having a fearless and independent advocate presenting your case.
Now you may still not believe any of this is about to happen in a land of the free with the Mother of Parliaments. After all I am but a mere blogger these days so why take my word for it? Hang on though! Please read what Sir Anthony Hooper has to say – Express 19 May, Top judge warns Government’s legal aid reforms could bring meltdown. He had a distinguished career in the law and as a judge in the Court of Appeal and so he does know what he is talking about.
Perhaps even after that you remain convinced that it can never happen to you. I now urge you to read the excellent blog A Barrister’s Wife. Read the stories of: Exhibit A (The “Child Pornographer” – actually an innocent grandfather); and Exhibit B (The “Murderer” – actually an innocent man and the real ‘scumbag’ remains free); Exhibit C (“The Paedophile” – guilty man not the accused father but the mother’s boyfriend) and Exhibit D (“The Fraudster” – female employee ‘set up’ by other workers). These are true, real-life, stories.
The right to choose your own lawyer will, of course, remain in the strict letter of the law but the reality will be that unless you are wealthy you will have to make do with someone allocated to you by the state or, alternatively, you may feel forced to represent yourself. No true freedom of choice there.
This is not special pleading by lawyers. It is a matter which strikes at the very heart of democracy – a society which believes in the rule of law and in the proposition that an accused person is innocent until proven guilty to a high standard before a properly constituted court which is independent of the government.
Please act now to preserve criminal legal aid – get on to your MP (find your MP here) and please sign the petition with a view to getting all of this debated in Parliament before the secretary of state signs off an order implementing these appalling plans.
The Ministry of Justice’s consultation on reform – Transforming legal aid: Delivering a more credible and efficient system closes on 4 June.