Monday, 20 April 2015

The Tuesday Truth

This week's Tuesday Truth is by retired Crown Court Judge and former defence Solicitor Barrington Black

1956 is only 60 years ago, to me it seems like yesterday.  How does the song go? … “Sunrise, Sunset, Sunrise, Sunset…  Those 60 years have passed very quickly since I first practiced Law, and never, ever, did I dream that I would witness the profession and it’s practitioners being treated in such a disdainful manner by the Government, and particularly by a Conservative government.

They have acted like a destructive, revolutionary band in some third world country whose aim is to destroy law and order by striking at its proper administration.

Warning bells should have rung out the moment David Cameron appointed, for the first time in the history of this country, someone who arguably did not fit the required description given for such office in Section 2 of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. 

In the course of discussion on that bill, Lord Phillips clearly stated

“If you have a Prime Minister who believes in the importance of the Rule of Law, one would hope he would appoint someone who already has a standing, and is likely to perform the role of a guardian of the Rule of Law and judicial independence”

Christopher Grayling has acted like the sales manager of some minor copying paper company giving pep talks to his salesmen, rather than the head of an historic, world respected judicial administration.

When I began practice the 1949 Legal Aid Act was beginning to take effect in a progressive and efficient manner.  It replaced Dock Briefs and the Poor Mans Lawyer, and the various ad hoc systems attempting to arrange representation for those who needed it.

The original system depended on a generous or otherwise Magistrates Clerk, payment was frugal, but advocates took it on as a means of advancing their experience.   The local Law Society then administered it, and gradually criteria for its grant and payment of fees developed.

Above all, it worked.  There were few cases of fraudulent attempts to enhance payments by practitioners, in fact I cannot think of any, we were trusted, and the Law Society had a canny skill in separating the sheep from the goats. Those who were inefficient, and who delayed things did not profit by it because such tactics became self-evident.

Unfortunately though, as time passed by, some practitioners became greedy and tried on the Oliver Twist syndrome, the very high cost claimants contributed to a degree of confusion. For whether a case is complicated or otherwise the criteria surely had to be whether more time was spent in dealing with it, rather than the extent to which it stretched the mind.  Counting of sheets of evidence inflated claims, but much of this could have been avoided by stronger judicial control.  Eventually that control was becoming the norm.

I certainly had no complaints, and considered the rate of pay reasonable.   I believe that the service, which I supplied, was appreciated, and although it involved long, and often unsociable hours, it was a profession, which I had freely chosen.

I firmly believe that the problems in recent years have come about by political and in some cases judicial interference, by those who have never had the experience of being called out in the middle of the night, by people who have never entered a cell in a police station or prison and sat at a table opposite someone facing what for them was a terrifying prospect, all the more so, as did happen from time to time contrary to popular belief, someone who is completely innocent. Nor have they been consulted by someone facing a lengthy and time consuming probe by a prosecuting authority and facing the prospect of selling their own home in order to achieve adequate representation.

Whilst on the Bench, and until the recent draconian cuts, I had the satisfaction of knowing that those in front of me were well represented by the system, That once granted Legal Aid, if they could afford to pay for their representation then they would be able to obtain immediate representation for the hearing, and later, if necessary I could make a repayment order towards legal aid.      I shudder to think about the disruption which may now ensue from so many unrepresented defendants, and the expense which will be caused by delay and protracted hearings. 

Perhaps I reached the age of 75 at the right time, and compulsory retirement was necessary, but when four years later I was invited to Gibraltar to deal with a backlog of crime, and found there was no effective legal aid system, in the first week facing an application in a multi million pound fraud with three defendants whose assets had been frozen, I adjourned the matter for two weeks and asked the Government there to bring in a legal aid system which had been waiting in the wings.  Happily they did so, and the case could proceed…. Or so I thought.   Alas there were delays because practitioners, from this country, did not believe they were being paid enough.

I mention this because it is all too easy to become the authors of our own misfortune and all too easy for all lawyers to be tarred with the same brush.

My concern is for the little man, the high street practitioner, the young counsel finding his or her feet, the solicitor and barrister  who have chosen this socially conscious branch of the law. , Lawyers who in effect are the first line of defence for the person who needs help.   And let us remember these lawyers are the ones really needed by the   “hard working taxpayer ” whom politicians claim they are striving to help.

And in their turn these lawyers are, one hopes, the judges of the future because they are the ones who appreciate the problems of the working person rather than those in other realms of the law whose briefs are marked in thousands, rather than the small change this government grudgingly offers.

A message from the LCCSA/CLSA

As you may know, Sir Alan Moses, Shami Chakrabati, Helena Kennedy and Ian Lawrence are part of a panel of speakers who will be addressing a rally in London on Thursday 23rd April at 2pm, and the national press are expected to be in attendance. This rally is not about two tier (two tier will come in if the Conservatives return to power, it won't if Labour succeed). This rally is about access to justice. It is about the fact that legal aid is important and that the public agree with this. The rally is about uniting the profession and saying to every political party that times have changed and we are no longer prepared to sit back and take whatever change they decide to make. We are currently underpinning a crumbling criminal justice system. We constantly make up for the failings of the court and the CPS with very little fuss. We cannot allow this to continue. No other profession would make the allowances and the concessions that we do, most of the time at personal cost.The rally needs to be well attended to send out a clear message. It really isn't too much to ask for firms and barristers chambers to send a representative to London as a show of support. Yes, it means one person out of the office or court for a day; yes, it means £12 for the ticket; and yes, it means the cost of a rail fare. This really is nothing when you consider the importance of such an event.

Please, please do not ignore this and please show your support to help us change things in the future.  Book a place now!






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