Once again, a story about ‘fat-cat’ legal aid lawyers appears, in The Sun on Sunday and the Sunday Telegraph (9th December 2012), at the same time as the government faces a more militant profession, and a defeat in the House of Lords by peers – who would not tolerate the Ministry of Justice going back on a promise made during the debates on the Legal Aid Sentencing & Punishment of Offenders Bill in the summer.
When he was Minister of Justice, Kenneth Clarke stated in terms that public money was being used to fund litigation which it should not be funding – the policy was to stop it. If you can’t pay for a lawyer, represent yourself. The concession that the government tried to withdraw until the House of Lords stopped them in December was to retain legal aid in a small number of Tribunal appeals in which there was a point of law to be argued. Points of law are not for the faint-hearted. If you have been sacked, or had your benefits withdrawn, and you take your case to a Tribunal, you have a major job on your hands on any reckoning. The other side will probably be represented. You won’t. You may not know there is a point of law in your favour. If the government manages to reverse the House of Lords in the Commons, you will not get legal aid for a lawyer to tell you.
That the story appears in a Murdoch tabloid and a traditionally Tory paper suggests a resumption of the unholy alliance between his media and the government that Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry shone a dim light on. (It’s also worth remembering that News International attempted to get out of their contract with Andy Coulson to pay his legal fees in the criminal proceedings that he faces – had they succeeded, he would have been eligible for legal aid, so there’s a whiff of double-standards about the whole thing.) Whether the story was planted, or whether the Sun and Telegraph just happen to share the government’s contempt for legal aid lawyers, the truth is that this is a much-used diversionary tactic, to distract public attention away from this government’s policy of destruction of legal aid.
They are disenfranchising numberless individuals from access to justice. Access to justice needs access to lawyers – good ones, who know what they are doing.
Clarke also claimed that it was only the lawyers who were complaining, and only because the cuts would hurt their livelihoods. The first part may be true – but that is because we see what is happening, and others don’t. The second is a smear. It’s true that my livelihood will be affected, but I can see beyond that. The Criminal Bar sets itself high standards in competence and ethics, and lives up to them as well as any profession can. We have those standards for a reason – to ensure that the public interest is served in the critically important arena of criminal litigation. For a tiny number, the receipts in a given year are high – but that may be because it has taken years for the Legal Services Commission to pay up on old cases. For many, and especially beginners, the pay is derisory; for most, it is on the modest side of reasonable. But unless the pay is reasonable, the best and brightest will stop coming. When the fourth and fifth raters take over, those high standards will go. Guilty people will walk free and people will be in prison who should not be.
So don’t be fooled by the Sun on Sunday and its friends in government. They resort to this propaganda because they have no answer to the justified protests about what they have done.