“The freedoms we all take for granted will disappear” Susan Matthews on government’s Legal Aid proposals

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‘The hard-working public pay for legal aid, and we must deliver a system which commands their confidence and uses their money wisely’.  (Chris Grayling, Ministry of Justice consultation paper)

I am the ‘hard working public that pays for legal aid’.  I am also the mother of a defendant who faced three trials, lasting in total over twelve weeks and stretching over a period of eleven months.  Two years to the day after he was charged with Violent Disorder at the student protest of 9th December 2010, my son was unanimously acquitted in under four hours.  To fight for over two years takes courage.  But it also requires expert legal support.  My son was supported by one of the small firms that specialise in protest cases, (Christian Khan), served by immensely dedicated lawyers who work far beyond the terms of their contracts.  Margaret Gordon and Sarah McSherry continued with my son’s case long after the criminal aid funding dried up.

The changes make sense if you assume that you will never need to call on legal aid yourself.  You may believe that the innocent will always be acquitted, or (even) that innocent people are never charged with crimes.  You may assume that legal support from knowledgeable and passionate professionals will be available if you need the law.  But it has not always been available and may not be there in the future if you or your loved ones should need it.

Back in 1975, my (conservative voting) mother volunteered at a Citizens Advice Bureau and was trained as a lay advocate in claims of unfair dismissal.  Legal aid was not then available in the newly formed industrial tribunals, designed to offer an accessible form of law requiring no expert legal knowledge.  The problem was that the employers (often firms such as Macdonalds) used top barristers to present their side of the case.  Will difficult cases and cases which threaten the state in future be defended by well meaning volunteers?

The changes to criminal legal aid now proposed would take us to a situation far worse than that of 1975.  The changes are wide ranging, but one change particularly disturbs me: the removal of ‘client’ choice.  At present a defendant can select a solicitor according to area of expertise.  In future, in order to introduce economies of scale, solicitors from a reduced number of approved large firms will be automatically assigned to defendants.  Once assigned, no changes will be allowed.  It’s worth the mind experiment, I think, of transferring this model to the NHS.  How would we feel if the (tired, junior) doctor we met in Accident and Emergency was the doctor who must – of necessity – continue to supervise our care, whatever our problem.  If unable to pay for a specialist, we were to be operated on by non-specialist surgeons, working for large firms and dealing with broken limbs, transplants, heart surgery, and neurosurgery.  We would be outraged if doctors were automatically allocated according either to the day of the week on which we were to be operated on, or alphabetically, according to our surname.  Such a thing would be unthinkable.

Yet this is the proposal that is being made in an attempt to save money on criminal legal aid.  According to the consultation document (4.75): ‘ Applicants [solicitors] that were awarded contracts would […] be expected to have the capacity and capability to undertake all of the categories of work within the scope of the contract [my emphasis] or use appropriately qualified agents.’  Cases will be shared out:

(a) allocating strictly on a case by case basis, for example, in an area where there were five providers, the first case would be allocated to provider one, the second to provider two and so on until the fifth case was reached. […];  or

(b) allocating clients to a provider based on the day of month of birth (for example, all clients born on 9 April would be allocated to provider one, 10 April to provider two and so on); or.

(c) allocating clients to a provider alphabetically by surname initial. (4.89)

Even if the firms that specialise in protest law were to group together to bid for contracts (allowing economies of scale), they could not access those defendants charged at protests.  Not only will the innocent go to prison under these proposals, not only will committed and passionate professionals lose their jobs, not only will a body of expertise be lost, but the freedoms we all take for granted will disappear.   

Susan Matthews parent of Alfie Meadows and Secretary of DtRtP

Alfie Meadows was recently acquitted of VD charges relating to the student anti-fees protests.

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