This is a story that will never make the front pages. It will not excite the indignation of backbenchers cowed by their constituents. It will not even raise a flicker of concern in the pubs and clubs. But it is of fundamental constitutional importance, threatens the rule of law and places the vulnerable and weak at the mercy of a powerful executive.
If the Ministry of Justice gets its way in twenty four months the independent criminal bar will cease to exist and 75% of solicitors firms will evaporate from the high street. Forever.
As I have written so many times before the MOJ is a nest of vipers and nursery of traitors. Traitors to a criminal justice system that is creaking at the seams and is in danger of total collapse. Sadly, we have a Lord Chancellor (who has never practised in the courts) and a raft of ministers new to the job who are sleep walking into civil servant driven schemes that will make our justice system worthy of Putin’s Russia.
Oh, you may say, these are just the dying gasps of an over paid vested interest biting and scratching like ferrets in a sack to preserve their rich pickings. If only it was.
Let me set the scene. Contrary to what may appear in the papers, criminal legal aid fees have been drastically cut. Uncomfortable as it is for me personally, in this economic climate I can’t really protest. What I do object to is waiting so long for fees for work done. A few years ago we took a pay cut so that we would be paid within twenty eight days. The system of calculation was done by the court clerks in the Crown Court where the case was tried. It cost nothing. But Jack Straw, despite the Justice Committee concluding that the Legal Services Commission was not fit for purpose stripped court clerks of this and handed it over to a new LSC tier of bureaucracy. It is costly, incompetent and takes a good three months to pay us, provided they don’t mess the figures up, which they invariably do. There have been bankruptcies, suicides and a flotilla of repossessions. I am fortunate to have a good practice with high profile cases. I have been paid £1,000 in the last two months.
But that is history, or rather a very unwelcome present.
The real horror which should put the fear of God into everyone who believes in democracy is the MOJ’s plans to introduce competitive tendering into the criminal justice system. This again started under Jack Straw, and put on ice and then resurrected by Ken Clarke, who delayed it. We were promised by Chris Grayling a consultation in the Autumn. This week he has brought it forward to April. For eight weeks. And then in words that would cheer Mr. Mugabe, the first contracts will start rolling out. Like all consultations with the MOJ they are not even window dressing. They know what they want to do and nothing will get in their way.
What competitive tendering means is a race to the bottom. The lowest price wins. Quality is not even a factor. Economies of scale is the answer. Large Corporations will replace family solicitors who will disappear. The chambers system, where specialist and experienced barristers defend and prosecute will end to be replaced by low paid, low grade nine till fivers. Are these sort of people going to put the hours in that we do at weekends (unpaid) to strive to ensure that our clients whether it be the CPS or those accused of a crime are properly represented? Who have the experience and skill to cross examine victims of rape and abuse sensitively? Of course not. Welcome to Wonga Law.
At the bar we have made it clear that we will put forward proposals to make the system cheaper and more efficient. There are unnecessary hearings that can be dealt with by email or video link. We will lose money, but it is sensible. Will anyone listen? Well, Grayling won’t even talk to Michael Turner QC who is the chairman of the Criminal Bar Association. Why? Because he is straight talking and tells it as it is. Grayling had told leading politicians that he wants Turner silenced.
Well, we are not going to be silenced. There is going to be a bloody great row. The public have a right to know how their rights are going to be affected and if it means joining with solicitors and taking industrial action then I’ll be the first on the picket line.
This is not about pay, those arguments were lost years ago. This is about access to justice. It is about protecting the weak and the vulnerable. It is about ensuring even the most wicked have a fair trial. It is about preserving the great British tradition of equality before the law.
The mood in the robing rooms has turned from despair to a very real anger. Some of us are prepared to stand up and be counted and fight for our well respected system of justice.
First they came for the lawyers……………..