The Strike and Why Pro Bono isn’t Free Mr Gove

It came as a considerable relief to hear that last night the Doncaster area had finally signed up to Strike Action joining a galaxy of Legal Aid heroes across the UK who are placing their careers and firms at risk by making a stand against the Governments draconian cuts and attack on our justice system .

Of course the reality is that the Criminal Justice System has been a political football for many years and Solicitors have been under financial attack since the introduction of Standard Fees in the Magistrates Court . At that time Lawyers had met and considered action only to be persuaded by the Law Society that engagement was the answer – it has proved to be a fundamental error and one which has set the agenda for the years that followed .

Solicitors and Defence Counsel have long been portrayed as the cause of delay and cost to the system . The Truth is this is just the same sort of spin that allowed Grayling and others to suggest that Criminal Lawyers are “fat cat lawyers” a proposition that is laughable .

The reality is  of course that the system has been in long decay and there is no-one who would disagree with that , but that decay has been caused by poor administration , underfunding of the machinery of justice and constant interference by Governments “dabbling” in the system for short term political gain .

The end result is we have a justice system which isn’t fit for purpose and the only answer ultimately is to call a Royal Commission on the future of our justice system and to commit to a radical overhaul which must be fully funded . 

Michael Gove is right that there are effectively 2 tiers to our justice system , those that can afford to pay for the best representation and those who cannot .

We have a system in which we drive the poorest representation at Police Stations due to the minuscule level of police station fixed fees and a Court system that is only interested in how quick they can get someone to a guilty plea positively incentivising legal representatives to obtain those outcomes .

And when we have wrongfully convicted the people we push through our justice system , we offer no effective remedy to restore the balance with our Independent body the Criminal Cases Review Commission in serious financial strain and the outcome of the recent Justice Committee Inquiry concluding that there remain considerable issues with the Court of Appeal failing to review miscarriage cases adequately . A matter which the Law Commission has been requested to review .

Within that context the Government chose to introduce draconian cuts and market reform without curing the fundamental problems that exist in the system . Rather they returned to the same political football”the lawyers ” and sought to introduce over the last 2 years a draconian 17.5% cut to fees . At the same time introducing competitive tendering for duty contracts with a reduction of supplier base from just over 1600 to just over 500 across the whole country . 

Any right minded person would understand the consequences of this approach you can’t cut providers to nothing and then expect them to bid for and service contracts which offer no guarantee of volumes or turnover with the same cut fee scheme . The whole policy is based upon a notional idea that with less suppliers there would be a greater volume and turnover . A policy the Government cannot deliver upon . 

Crime is falling according to governments own statistics , volumes cannot be guaranteed and the rates now are far beyond economic whether they apply to one case or 500 .

Further readers may also assume that once a job is done that is the end of the matter and the Solicitor gets the fee no matter how small it may be . This is of course not true because even after overheads the provider faces an aggressive recoupment strategy where auditors assess completed files with the strategy of using every technical rule to try to recoup monies paid .

As a result the system is one in which no reasonable person could continue to work in . Which is why after moves to conciliate were rebuffed Solicitors have now voted with their feet .

Attempts by the Government to buy off the Bar have so far failed with many grassroots barristers giving their leaders the clearest signal that they stand shoulder to shoulder with solicitors in saving justice .

Perhaps the most galling part of all of this was the new Secretary of State for Justices suggestion that Large firms have a pro bono commitment which they are not keeping as if doing everything for free is the answer to the failing  system .

Is he suggesting Consultants and Doctors within our NHS System should give all their time for free ? I think not .

The truth is that the whole system is in fact built on good will . There are indeed many larger organisations that do offer considerable financial commitment to pro bono work , I have for example had experience working with 2 very large organisations who do so – “White & Case ” and “Cleary Gottlieb” . Their commitment and dedication to putting something back in around the world is not in doubt .

But here is the truth much of the pro bono work done around this country is not done by large multi nationals it is done by committed individual solicitors and firms who have very limited resources . They do it due to their dedication to justice .  

If these reforms stand it will be uneconomic to continue and the Pro Bono work cannot be serviced if we cannot even break even on other work . We have no funds or reserves to fund pro bono work  .

If Michael Gove wants to see a vibrant system of Justice with a strong dedication to pro bono work he has to withdraw these cuts and engage in reforming the system . We should have a justice system that all our citizens can be proud of , surely that is what one nation toryism is all about .

In the meantime lawyers like me will withdraw from all new public funded work and further whilst I take a lot of pro bono work on particularly in miscarriage of justice cases I will not take another one on whilst the cuts remain .

The Government needs to understand pro bono work comes at a price , the cost is a justice system properly funded where providers are paid a reasonable rate for their dedication and commitment . 

 

 

 

 

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