Trevor Colebourne, director of criminal law at Vincents Solicitors – on the national Legal Aid protests
Everyone is entitled to legal representation, regardless of their ability to pay. This is a fundamental principle of British justice. And that representation should be provided by a qualified, experienced lawyer who has the skills and expertise to understand and work within the UK’s complex legal system.
That ideal is under threat after repeated cuts to Legal Aid funding, and there is a fear the service is dangerously close to breaking down. At the start of July, the Government cut Legal Aid for the second time in 15 months. Law firms in many parts of England and Wales protested, along with barristers nationwide.
It is hoped negotiations between the government and the legal profession will result in a satisfactory outcome. Law firms who undertake Legal Aid work have to provide a 24/7 service, as the money to pay for that service has been reduced, it becomes unviable for some firms to continue to take on such cases or they face going under.
Legal Aid is available to cover the cost of professional representation and ensure the fair and proper application of justice, in cases where the defendant cannot afford to represent themselves. Without that funding, individuals would have to consider whether fighting a case was financially viable, rather than deciding because they were innocent or had a winnable case. The alternatives would be self-representation, which is risky, or the selection of a lawyer based on cost alone.
The cuts have already taken their toll on the legal profession, which is struggling to attract new entrants into criminal law at a time when many older practitioners are looking towards retirement. Some firms specialising in criminal law are finding it hard to recruit because they cannot offer competitive salaries, and no one would be surprised if many junior lawyers chose to go into other more lucrative areas of practice.
The cuts to Legal Aid over the last 20 years have seen rates fall by 27 per cent. Consider the increased costs of living over this time, the administrative costs and overheads, the fact that the service has to be provided 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and it becomes less and less cost effective. Consider that salaries across the economy have increased by 50 per cent, and it seems unfair. Another cut planned for January 2016 could send many firms under.
As the older lawyers retire and younger ones select other options, the pool of talent is diminished. The remaining practitioners are overworked and underpaid, and less skilled juniors will be drafted in to fill the gaps. And who wants the overworked, underpaid, less experienced lawyer representing their interests when their very liberty may be at stake?
Vincents supports the protest because everyone - especially the innocent, children and the vulnerable - is entitled to a fair trial representation from a skilled lawyer. The criminal justice system must be designed to make sure this happens.
Even the Lord Chancellor, Michael Gove, accepts there is a two-tier system of justice in Britain today. He was quoted on July 20th as saying: “There are two nations in our justice system at present. On the one hand, the wealthy… And then everyone else, who has to put up with a creaking, outdated system…”
So it is essential we take a stand against further cuts. This kind of work represents only a small part of what we do, but we are committed to standing with our colleagues because we feel strongly that the country needs a criminal justice system that has capable ambitious lawyers to defend and prosecute, and a system that everyone represented in the police station and courts can have confidence in.
The issue is so important for the future, for everyone who wants to live in a country where the rights of the individual to fair justice are treated with respect.
In a year where we celebrate the 800th anniversary of the founding principles of English Law in Magna Carta and the right to access to justice, which is held in high esteem worldwide, how have we got to the point where our current system is so broken?