Magistrates are in revolt over what I will refer to in this blog as “Grayling’s Parting Gift” the Criminal Courts Charge. Over 20 have resigned in protest. The charges vary from the Magistrates’ Court and Crown Court, they are mandatory and not means tested.
It is, of course, likely to provide a perverse incentive to some innocent defendants to plead guilty because of the risk of the hugely disproportionate court charge if they are wrongly convicted. These increases are consistent with a pattern of massive court fee increases in the civil courts including employment tribunals.
If you plead guilty to say a burglary in the Crown Court the court charge is £900. Interestingly enough the legal aid fee payable to the litigator and advocate in such a case is likely to be less, probably in the region of approximately £700 + VAT, the litigator’s element less than £200.
If the defendant is in custody it is likely that for the litigator’s £200 they will have represented the defendant in the Magistrates Court, possibly prepared a Crown Court bail application, visited the defendant in custody on at least two occasions, and liaised with counsel and the Crown, all for substantially less than the defendant will have to pay in relation to an unmeritorious mandatory non-means tested charge. As defence lawyers we, of course, welcome the outcry from Magistrates over the court charge, but quite frankly wish that they could also extend their protest to the equally appalling legal aid cuts and reforms. After all they as much as anyone else witness the deterioration in the administration of justice every day before them and it is perhaps time that all stakeholders in this creaking justice system had the courage to stand up and say “no more”.
This isn’t about politics, it isn’t about the judiciary becoming involved in a political debate, it is about the delivery of a fair and robust justice system. Every Judge and Magistrate up and down the country is charged with this duty and indeed has sworn on oath that they will protect the rule of law in their courtroom, yet as the system unravels their voice remains silent.
Criminal legal aid lawyers, solicitors and barristers have taken protest action since 1 July 2015. There has been engagement by the LCCSA and CLSA with the leadership of the criminal Bar and the Big Firm group. The two-tier contract system due to be launched in January represents a huge threat to both solicitors and barristers. Fees across the board for all the work solicitors do, in the police stations, Magistrates’ Court and Crown Court, have been substantially slashed following the introduction of these new contracts. Not by 8.75%, not by 17 ½ %, but by much more. Further swingeing cuts follow in January to the LGF scheme and before that in October fixed fees for VHCC cases will be introduced.
When will people wake up and start realising what is coming? For a guilty plea in the Crown Court to an offence of burglary, the overall fee reduction will be 52%. Many of the reductions to these fees are over 20 and 30%, with greater percentage reductions on not guilty trials. If you plead not guilty to a serious sexual offence and the page count is in the region of 200 pages, the fee for preparing the trial which will inevitably be defence led and will involve taking very detailed instructions on a complainant’s allegations, finding witnesses and pursuing unused material relating to events that took place many years ago will be £917.17, a reduction of 38.22%.
Examples such as the above have been rehearsed time and time again, but still many people do not get it. The Government’s attitude is that duty contracts will deliver economies of scale, so that firms can afford to prepare cases for the fees that will be on offer from January 2016. Can this be right? Can firms survive on mythical swings and roundabouts? What about quality legal advice? What about dealing with the vulnerable? What about a profession where liberty and reputation are the key words being treated appropriately with respect? What about a Lord Chancellor who acknowledges the contribution of solicitors?
Again, all of the above has been rehearsed time and time again. The Independent Bar stand to lose a great deal by two-tier. Advocates’ fees remain the same. To try to rebalance the books firms of solicitors will need to cover more
Higher Court work in-house either by
using Higher Court
advocates or recruiting barristers from the Independent Bar.
The leadership of the Bar say if you really want to kill off two-tier then all firms should withdraw their bids. However, although the LCCSA has launched such a bid withdrawal survey and the CLSA are considering their position this is not the only answer in town.
It is an appalling analogy so forgive me, but if you are dying you will do everything you possibly can to put off the end, to buy yourself some more time for a little while longer, and many firms have bid for duty contracts because it buys them more time, notwithstanding the economics, notwithstanding the absurdity of the scheme, notwithstanding the potential fallout, they know that two or three firms in their area, or just outside their area have bid so they bid. They have staff to pay and many, many other expenses.
The CLSA and the LCCSA hope that the last few weeks engagement with the MOJ have demonstrated to the MOJ that if we work together in an environment of trust then we can assist the MOJ in finding greater savings and efficiencies which do not require cuts.
We believe that many of the ideas we have put forward will lead to savings and we are fully supportive of implementing both the recommendations in the Leveson review and the Jeffrey’s report. There needs to be quality representation from the police station through to the Crown Court. There needs to be far greater strategising between the leadership of the Bar and the solicitors in terms of the way forward. The survey on bid withdrawal may not be enough, we need to work with the bar in persuading the MOJ that Two Tier is a disaster for everyone. We need to consider what else that solicitors and the bar can do to oppose this model. Arguments must be put forward concerning access to justice and the diversity of both sides of the profession so that criminal law does not become the preserve of bean counters or those whose families can subsidise their career choice
The bid survey is an excellent initiative which responds to the concerns of many members of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association, that there is no way that this system can work particularly given the shocking level of cuts which may all be operating by the time of the new contract. Those members who have called for such a survey need to respond to it, and promote it.
Recent meetings between us and the CBA leadership have been positive and we look forward to working with the new leadership team of Mark Fenhalls QC and Francis FitzGibbon QC and the junior bar of course in taking these matters forward together.
The exchanges with the Ministry of Justice and indeed the Lord Chancellor have been constructive. This week we will find out how constructive. Regardless of what, if anything, we are offered there needs to be greater acknowledgement on all sides (particularly the MOJ) that sitting round a table is a far better way forward.
However, assuming that the Lord Chancellor does not want the non relationship with solicitors his predecessor had, these are a crucial few days for the MOJ. Suggestions by solicitors have been made in good faith. Now it is time to see whether there is any real give and take.
It may be that the action can be temporarily suspended to acknowledge whatever offer is made provided there is ongoing engagement
It is definite that we can find the savings that the Ministry of Justice need as opposed to cuts, but it is time for them to simply decide whether they want to work with us or work against us, and ultimately if it’s with us Two Tier must go.