Legal aid: New proposals are horrifying

An open letter to John Hayes MP: I am a solicitor having specialised in criminal law for 25 years. I am a working single parent of 12-year-old state-educated twins.

I have a three bedroomed house, a five-year-old hatch-back and an overdraft. I am an ordinary person struggling to make ends meet like every other hard-working parent I know.

I have dedicated my professional life to defending the rights of, and providing a voice for, some of the most disadvantaged members of our society. I have spent entire days, nights and weekends at the police station. I work in this field despite the monetary rewards swinging between modest and derisory, because I believe in the fundamental importance to our society of the work that I do and the need to use my skills to preserve a system proven to ensure fairness and proportionality in the administration of justice .

You will doubtless understand, therefore, why I am utterly insulted by Chris Grayling’s recent description of me as a “fat cat lawyer”. I do not know any fat cat lawyers. Lincolnshire has nothing but committed lawyers working very long hours motivated by the need to protect the rights of the young, the mentally ill, the illiterate and people going through every manner of crisis.

I entirely appreciate that the “ordinary man in the street” sees no justification for anyone who “helps criminals” let alone at the public expense. That perception however changes entirely, when they, or their loved ones, get arrested for something they deny. I witness daily the fear of the “ordinary man in the street” as the full might of the system grinds into action against him. At that stage people turn to us trusting that we are there to ensure that their voice is heard and their rights are protected and I go from being beneath their contempt to representing all their hopes that justice will indeed prevail.

The provision of an independent quality lawyer, funded by the state when you are prosecuted by the state is a fundamental factor in a free society. It is very frightening that any British Government could be so recklessly damaging this right.

Lincolnshire currently has 14 small firms practising in crime. It is proposed this will be reduced to just four contract holders chosen purely on who is the cheapest with no reference to quality or any prior demonstration of an ability to do the job. Large national corporations will be encouraged to bid including Tesco, G4s,The Co-op and Eddie Stobart.

The fact that the future of our justice system lies with these companies with no legal background, is horrifying but for them to even consider moving into this market they would need to make a substantial investment and will then become dependent upon retaining the goodwill of the Government for future retention of their contracts. How is this going to ensure that the lawyers in those firms maintain their independence when it comes to the often very unpopular arguments we all have to pursue in the interests of justice eg challenging police or government policy?

To encourage these inexperienced companies to bid people will not be allowed to select the lawyer who is going to act for them but instead they will have a lawyer allocated to them. In his “Big Society” speech in 2011 David Cameron hailed choice as the key to ensuring quality. How then can the removal of choice be defended in the Legal Aid proposals?

Lastly, the Government justifies these changes by saying the Criminal Legal Aid budget is “spiralling out of control” This is not true. The legal aid bill has plummeted and continues to drop, partly due to already swingeing cuts and partly due to an inexplicable policy to drastically reduce the number of people being charged and prosecuted (despite there having been no similar reduction in crime levels).

Rachel Stevens