Justice is not for sale
Paramjit Ahluwalia, a committee member of Young Legal Aid Lawyers and a criminal defence barrister, writes about the ‘Justice for Sale’ meeting on 22 May which discussed responses to the government’s proposals for price competitive tendering (PCT) in criminal legal aid:
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has the morality of a thief. It provided us as a profession with merely eight weeks to respond to its latest ‘proposals’ in the paper, Transforming legal aid: delivering a more credible and efficient system. These proposals include planned cuts of £220m to the legal aid fund, the removal of client choice in representation and the introduction of PCT.
What the MoJ did not expect was the impressive and unified stance of the profession as a whole, namely the ‘market providers’ of legal services. We came out in force, with 1,000 attendees at the sell-out event, from both junior and senior ends of the professions, solicitors and the Bar. At the end of the meeting, resolutions were unanimously passed calling on the government to abandon its PCT plans, a resolution not to bid until PCT is withdrawn, and one of non-co-operation with the Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates. What was most evident throughout the meeting was the heartfelt emphasis by all that the reforms would lead to an erosion of quality in the justice system.
Removal of client choice
One aspect of these proposals is the removal of client choice. Des Hudson, chief executive of the Law Society, relayed the views of the QC it has instructed that these proposals are unlawful.
Sir Anthony Hooper, a retired judge from the Court of Appeal, received a standing ovation after his speech, which highlighted the disastrous impacts these reforms would have on vulnerable clients, for example, those suffering from mental health difficulties or those from ethnic minorities.
Sir Anthony pithily remarked that ‘contrary to the views of the secretary of state for injustice, defendants are not too thick to pick,’ a rebuttal to Justice Secretary Chris Grayling’s previous contemptuous remarks in the Law Society Gazette that: ‘I don’t believe that most people who find themselves in our criminal justice system are great connoisseurs of legal skills.’
Impure market analysis
Time and time again speakers outlined the true value of the justice system, calling as Shawn Williams, acting chairperson of the Solicitors Association of Higher Court Advocates, did for ‘quality driven research’, not some ‘Dutch auction’. The PCT proposals are an impure market analysis and not an appropriate model to apply to something as vital as the criminal justice system. As neatly put by Bill Waddington, chairperson of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association: ‘Describing us as an industry is to try and label clients as raw materials and an affront to the English language.’
Nigel Lithman QC, vice-chairperson of the Criminal Bar Association, rightly placed emphasis on the long-term sustainability of the professions. He highlighted parallels to the health system, and stressed the need to train and retain the lawyers and judges of the future and the total disregard shown to this by the government’s current proposals.
He went on to highlight the difficulties faced by the younger members of the profession: ‘Those that come … come in spite of accumulated debt, pupillage with no funding or modest levels of income, outstanding academic credentials. Almost all could earn far more. They come to the profession with a strong sense of social justice.’
Jo Sidhu QC, co-chairperson of the Society of Asian Lawyers, highlighted the impact that such reforms will have on black and minority ethnic firms within the industry and how these proposals will take the profession backwards by many years (if not decades). The injustices against minorities and the stalwart work of firms involved in cases such as Zahid Mubarek and Stephen Lawrence were highlighted.
Andy Slaughter, Labour Shadow Justice Minister, demonstrated his views that ‘this is more than one man of Grayling – this is about civilisation in this country, the way we run a fair trial’. The essence of the proposals, as Andy Slaughter put it, was ‘a wholesale attempt to deprofessionalise the legal system, and a threat to the rule of law’. And this is the basic foundation to the very justice system of which we are proud to be a part.
This is not merely a question of figures and contracts, but rather a question of upholding basic foundations of fairness and equality. As summarised by Greg Powell, managing partner of Powell Spencer and Partners, these proposals are to be ‘defeated by our humanity and acting collectively. The rule of law only has meaning if there is access to justice. This struggle will require all of us to be fearless’.