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Guest blog: if legal aid 'reform' goes ahead, we will be failing the victims of sexual violence and abuse

(33 Posts)
KateMumsnet (MNHQ) Wed 01-May-13 10:58:18

In today's guest blog, criminal barrister and Mumsnet blogger Catherine Donnelly argues that the government's plans to slash legal aid will have devastating consequences for the victims of sexual crime.

Tell us what you think here on the thread - and if you blog about this issue, don't forget to post your URL.

"In the days following the death of Margaret Thatcher, the Government quietly announced its latest consultation paper on the future of legal aid. It has largely passed by unnoticed. The argument surely is won. There must be public service cuts. The country is bankrupt and we have to save money somewhere.

Where better than from legal aid, where - according to the media - an endless stream of greedy lawyers leech off the worst excesses of humanity, growing fat on the proceeds.

But this is not just about money. Far more is at stake.

Under the guise of legal aid cuts, the Government is undertaking a radical overhaul of the criminal justice system. Few have yet grasped this fact - and soon it will be too late. The scheme proposed is often illogical, and in the long term unlikely to lead to the savings it seeks. But in the process, it will decimate the criminal justice system. Rape, child abuse; domestic violence, burglary and homicide cases - cases which in any case attract less than 10% of the legal aid budget - are again at the cutting edge of Government attacks.

In its overhaul of legal aid, this government has targeted the most vulnerable. They've taken legal aid from private family law in its entirety, for example, so that women seeking non- molestation orders, or contact and residence orders for their children, will have to represent themselves. They may well find themselves cross-examined in person by a domineering and bullying husband. Legal aid can be granted where there is at least one police report of domestic violence, yes. But if she has previously suffered in silence, she's on her own.

In addition to these reforms, the Government is proposing a scheme called 'best value tendering'. Contracts will be tendered for, and the lowest bid will win. Those in the running include G4S, Tesco and the haulier Eddie Stobart.

A lack of legal training or knowledge is no bar to running one of these contracts, though of course these 'alternative business structures' are unlikely to be motivated by the same idealism that still drives most criminal lawyers.

Effectively, G4S, Eddie Stobart and the like will be running crown court trials. In order to maximise profit, you will be provided with a cut-rate advocate who will do the job cheaply and quickly, with the profit making its way into the CEO's bonus.

If the system is flooded with inexperienced advocates just out of law school who will do the job for peanuts, there will be no work for the independent criminal bar. They would be no financial incentive for the large conglomerates to use them. In those circumstances the independent bar will be unable to survive.

But remember the bar also provides the country's prosecutors. What might the loss of this collective experience mean for the most vulnerable - victims of rape and domestic violence, children who have been abused.

Currently, these cases are by and large dealt with by people with skill and experience - who can, for example, cross-examine a child with care, judgement and compassion. These things take years to learn.

What the government fail to understand - at least, one hopes they have failed to understand - is that the pool of advocates who prosecute and who are committed to prosecuting properly will go. A colleague of mine recently cross-examined a child in seven minutes. The inexperienced higher court advocate co-defending with him took an hour - the child, predictably, becoming increasingly distraught.

Because the police and the CPS are so under resourced, sexual and domestic violence cases also rely heavily on lawyers to do work for which they are not paid, and which in theory does not come under their remit. To make sure that a case is done properly we do the extra work that is necessary.

These cases are enormously hard to prosecute to conviction, as jurors still bring huge myths about rape into court. The government's new system rewards a speedy conclusion - but some cases just cannot be rushed. Years of sexual abuse cannot be reduced to an hour. There are people who think it can, of course - some judges routinely tell advocates to chop the evidence of rape victims and child sex abuse victims down to an hour notwithstanding that it means compelling detail is eviscerated in the process. This is how such cases are lost.

A nation's criminal justice system says a great deal about that country. How a society treats its victims - those who through no fault of their own find themselves face to face with the state, possibly at one of the most traumatic times in their lives - speaks volumes.

Conviction rates are already too low for sex abuse cases. Once more the government treat them as the poor relations of the money cases, and the results in this area of law will be devastating.

Please, make your voice heard. Write to your MP, or sign this petition. At the very least, tweet this blog; you might help people understand just what is about to be lost, before it is too late."

Catherine Donnelly blogs at The Barrister's Tale.

For more information on the proposed changes to legal aid, have a look here - and there's more about Mumsnet's We Believe You campaign here.

G4S handle prison transport as part of their ownership and involvement with the prison service. They are truly dreadful at it, partly because they neither understand nor seem to care about the importance of checking for warrants and other legal documents before moving a prisoner. Them being involved in the courts terrifies me.

I'm off to sign the petition now.

Viviennemary Wed 01-May-13 14:25:12

I think legal aid should be available if a potential crime is involved as in suspected sexual abuse cases or domestic violence. Not sure about the divorce/separation side of things. I think it should be scaled down in this area because it all has to be paid for.

ShadyLadyT Wed 01-May-13 16:27:47

Hear hear, Catherine. I am sorry but not surprised that there have only been two reponses to the above post.

My DP is a barrister and I am all too familiar with these shocking, swingeing reforms which are being rushed in. On the whole, people think that lawyers are all fat parasites and criminals deserve what they get; and therefore they aren't interested in potential miscarriages of justice or potentially a really shoddy level of advocacy. But the quality of our judicial system is admired all around the world. Not for much longer!

IneedAsockamnesty Wed 01-May-13 19:35:34

Its shocking and so few people understand what's happening

Viviennemary Wed 01-May-13 20:09:56

I don't quite understand what is happening. So it's hard to be for or against.

specialsubject Wed 01-May-13 20:18:36

the issue as I understand it is that legal aid will go to the lowest bidder, so the lawyer you get may be the cheapest, not the best. G4S? Tesco? Barristers (I am surprised to discover) are not well-paid - or sometimes even decently paid. This will make it worse.

now you may think 'but I'm not a criminal, why would I need legal aid?'. The answers include; if you are on the receiving end of a crime, or fraud, or abuse...or many other things.

it does matter. Please sign the petition.

NellysKnickers Wed 01-May-13 20:32:01

I've already signed the petition, working in law I find this shocking. Come on people sign, it could be your DC needing legal advice through making a silly mistake or through no fault of their own. The consequences of these ridiculous cuts do not bear thinking about.

NiceTabard Wed 01-May-13 20:44:55

I have signed.

Is there a link to this apart from in FWR? I think a wider audience would be interested in this.

bringbackopalfruits Wed 01-May-13 20:50:33

Have signed. I just despair. We used legal aid when we left my abusive father. We'd never called the police, he was abusive in everyway except physical and my mum was too terrified to leave (or tell anyone) until I insisted we go. we used LA for several injunctions to stop him stalking us, and for the divorce. What would we do now I wonder? We'd be screwed.

EasyToEatTiger Wed 01-May-13 21:00:02

I've just signed and posted the link on FB.I have friends who have been legal aid lawyers, and friends who have needed them. It has been said that the law belongs to the rich.

CloudsAndTrees Wed 01-May-13 21:40:19

Legal aid was barely available to anyone before the reforms anyway. We already had a situation where people who desperately needed legal representation couldn't afford it so couldn't access it, so I don't see that much has changed there.

cnaik Wed 01-May-13 23:39:17

It's all true and horribly depressing. The price of further cuts is incompetent representation, cases not ready, more spent on adjournments and delays than would be "saved". "speedy justice" is said to be the aim but both speed and justice will be sacrificed. It would be a joke if the consequences were not so serious. God forbid that you or your loved ones are the victims or accused of a criminal offence.

IneedAsockamnesty Thu 02-May-13 00:12:30

Don't talk rubbish clouds. It was available to everyone who fit the income criteria and whose case was valid.
It was also not a all or nothing thing some people got 100% others got less but it was income based.

CloudsAndTrees Thu 02-May-13 07:52:56

The income threshold was always low, and still excluded people that couldn't afford to pay for their own legal representation.

Growlithe Thu 02-May-13 09:51:55

I'm getting quite worried now. I hadn't heard about this (probably because of all the frothing about Thatcher's funeral).

I also am only just understanding the proposed changes to the National curriculum, and the measuring of schools in Education.

I an also only just starting to dig about in the changes to the NHS.

Such a lot is happening, but little of it is really getting reported in the popular media. It scares me.

JamNan Thu 02-May-13 10:29:53

Thatcher's funeral was a good day to bury bad news in more ways than one. I've signed.

You never know when you might need legal aid. Once again it's the poor and women and children who take the brunt. I despise this government.

ChildrensStoriesNet Thu 02-May-13 12:20:48

Firstly - I'm sure we are all most grateful for the many good Solicitors and Barristers in the UK

HOWEVER - hasn't some of the legal profession brought this problem on themselves and all those who will suffer as a result?

High and Excessive Charges are the norm for some (have you ever seen a poor lawyer?).

Low Pay for the majority puts legal help out of reach without legal aid.

Isn't the quickly growing pay gap driving the problem?

If lawyers earned less, but still good pay, surely we would all be better off?

ZillionChocolate Thu 02-May-13 13:08:18

ChildrensStoriesNet. How much do you think lawyers should earn?

On legal aid, lawyers don't set the charges/rates. It's determined by the government.

ChildrensStoriesNet Thu 02-May-13 16:06:08

The UK problem driving the economic failure is partly the collapse of the internal economy (not just banks and runaway public sector).

The growing pay gap has driven part of the collapse, the majority of workers claim some form of benefit (thus pay less tax in effect) while their employers build profitable empires.

How much should lawyers earn?

Above average pay for an above average job (no question many work hard and do a good job)

Some appear to earn excessively as indicated by their life style. One related problem is that much of the higher income isn't spent where it would benefit the struggling local economies from which the business comes.

So while not intended, some legal practices effectively milk local areas of their local economy capital (eg: some mining communities), thus the economy declines. Thus the demand for legal aid increases.

It's the size of legal aid that's driving the cuts, unless we enable local economies, making every one better off, it can only get worse, with more cuts, it's justice that will suffer, as so well pointed out in this thread.

We need Joined Up Thinking in government, but it's quite rare these days.

ShadyLadyT Thu 02-May-13 17:11:40

As was mentioned on the Today prog on Radio 4 the other week, a large number of legal aid criminal barristers earn around the same as a teacher or a nurse - hardly megabucks for the absolute stress, hours of prep and the hoops they have to jump through even to get into the profession.

But that's not actually the point. The fact is that these reforms will mean that all the quality advocates will not want to or be able to afford to stay in the profession, people will be represented in court by poor quality lawyers who will all earn about 28k a year, probably do a crap job and, to use one of the examples in the blog, woe betide you if you (for example) accidentally knock someone over and kill them and end up with someone inexperienced to put your case, etc etc.

edam Thu 02-May-13 19:59:07

The proposals are, frankly, terrifying. They should terrify everyone, because they will be devastating. Particularly for victims of abuse - children and adults as well.

Not content with trying to withdraw legal aid for victims of domestic violence last year - cuts that were renegotiated, but the final version is far from acceptable - and actually withdrawing legal aid for victims of clinical negligence*, they are now coming for abuse victims. Appalling.

*If the hospital muck up your delivery, and your baby sustains life-changing injuries and life-long disability, you are going to seriously regret the slashing of legal aid...

ZillionChocolate Fri 03-May-13 07:07:35

I don't think the job will end up paying enough to make it worthwhile. You'll be left with serious cases being done by people who aren't up to the job. Eventually that'll have a knock on effect on the Judges.

I wouldn't want a rape trial prosecuted and defended by someone inexperienced/willing to work for peanuts (relative to the commercial value of their work). In much the same way, I wouldn't want my surgeon to be straight out of university and unable to get a job that paid the going rate.

ChildrensStoriesNet Fri 03-May-13 10:39:35

A lot of common sense in this thread, well said every one.

The bottom line for me is, it's not just legal aid cuts, it's the dumb cut and stealth tax mentality we have seen over decade, low pay being part of the same logic.

While the practice helped make profits in the short term, longer term we dismantled our internal economy, instead of enabling it. I'm praying we haven't reached the point were there's only one way, down.

A simple illustration for any doubters is the house price explosion to 2 or 3 times the rebuilding costs in many cases, which was driven by the ability to pay (higher pay further up), inevitably those lower down got less share of the wealth (pay) and were squeezed out by prices and low pay.

Exactly the same process is happening in many areas of the economy, but it seems governance can't or won't see it.

ZillionChocolate Sat 04-May-13 09:15:27

I think house prices have been driven up by the ability to borrow. House price inflation hasn't been good for many people. If I look at the houses lawyers of 5-10 years experience live in, I think they are significantly worse than they would have been 20 years ago. I expect that is true for a lot of people.

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