Lots of pictures of bewigged barristers with placards about today*. Out on strike because of fee cuts, or so goes the oversimplified tag line. But this story is not about the lawyers at all, although it has been propelled in that direction because the criminal bar are responding to the recent release of statistical information by the MoJ that gives the impression that the income of the average criminal defence barrister is far more attractive than the rather grim reality (in short something like £25k p.a. BEFORE vat (20%) and income tax, sick leave, pension or holidays). They are right to be irritated about those inaccuracies, but that is for another blog post.
No. It's not about the wiggy ones at all. And its not about their fees**. It's about you. The potential defendant. The wrongly accused. The smeared. The one on the wrong end of a malicious allegation. The one who has been the victim of mistaken identity. The one who has made a stupid stupid mistake that they would never normally make.
Yes you. Because it's not even just about the criminals, the ones who have committed actual crimes. It's about all of us who could one day end up charged with an offence. And who need not just a defence lawyer, but a good defence lawyer.
Well I keep my nose clean, it won't happen to me. Right? Wrong. People like you and me do end up charged and standing trial.
Ever let someone else use your computer? What if they downloaded some dodgy pron and you took the machine in the shop?
Ever been through a messy divorce or separation, had a malicious allegation or an anonymous call to the police to get you into trouble? Ever done something stupid to your ex or their new partner? You know, keyed their car or kicked a door or sent a really horrid text? Did your ex get a non-molestation order against you (restraining order)? You won't have got legal aid to defend yourself against that. But you'll be wanting a defence lawyer if you are accused of breaching that order by going to the house or contacting her - because that's a criminal offence.
Ever been caught up in a fight just trying to protect a friend or to break it up? Even though you weren't looking for trouble.
Ever been in a car accident? Ever driven a bit too fast? Or when you were just a little bit worried you might still be over the limit?
Ever broken the law? Just a little bit?
Ever been stopped and searched for no good reason?
Were you a bit of an angry young man or off the rails?
Ever had someone think you were perving them when you weren't?
Got a secret that might make you an easy target or that might look all bit wrong if you were suspected of a crime? You know, you used to use drugs but only recreationally. You drink a bit too much. The police were called when you argued at the time you split up...? One of your colleagues accused you of harassment (even if she had made it all up). Ever stolen a shopping trolley or a bollard on a student night out?
I'm pretty confident that one of these applies to you or a member of your family or one of your friends. You might never have been charged with a criminal offence and you probably never will. But you could be.
I'm pretty confident that people like Michael De Vell, Colin Stagg, Barry George, the Grillo sisters, that GP accused of murder by euthanasing a patient, were all pretty glad of their defence teams. They were all ultimately acquitted, but until it happened to them I bet they thought it never would happen to them.
And it's not even just about the defendant. It's about the victim too. And the victim's family. And witnesses. Not just because less good defence lawyers means less good prosecution lawyers. But because convicting the wrong defendant doesn't help anyone. And nobody wants the real rapist / murderer etc to walk free. And because ham fisted cross examination is worse than tough but fair cross examination.
So that's what this is about. It's about the fact that the changes that are proposed will force solicitors firms out of business, and will make it impossible for new entrants to the bar to get a toehold, make it impossible for barristers chambers to survive.
There are already firms and chambers which have closed and cases where defendants have been unable to find a lawyer to represent them. At the moment they are few and far between. But that barristers (and solicitors) have been on "strike" today in such numbers, exposing themselves to potential complaints, disciplinary action and contempt of court is a pretty clear indicator that things are getting desperate. The bar are not really into histrionics and nor are they known for their radicalism. They believe in process, in responding to consultations with reasoned, evidence based argument. They believe that process has broken down.
You don't need to like barristers or solicitors much. And they don't need to be paid a gazillion pounds to do a good job. But you do need to understand that this IS about you. And about your legitimate expectation of a defence lawyer who will do a good job when you need them.
**It's not even about my fees. I'm a family barrister and whilst there are issues with legal aid in family work they are different issues, and that is not the subject of this post. I do not undertake criminal legal aid work.