People often gripe about the free legal aid system but, to my mind, it’s part of the price we pay for the Republic and its Constitution, which
seek[s] to promote the common good, with due observance of Prudence, Justice and Charity, so that the dignity and freedom of the individual may be assured [and] true social order attained.
Some people don’t like that the system exists at all. Others dislike the cost. A small number of lawyers make a lot of money from the legal aid budget, but they tend to work exclusively in criminal defence. And they work hard: criminal defence is far less profitable than many other areas of law, including areas that consume far greater amounts of taxpayer funding.
An email has been circulated among criminal defence lawyers proposing a Criminal Law Practitioners Union (CLPU) to lobby and negotiate with the Government on the system of criminal free legal aid. The email says that, when the next round of cuts are implemented, the fees paid for criminal legal aid will have been cut by up to 50% of their 2007 level.
Cuts of this magnitude will put a large number of [criminal legal aid lawyers] out of practice and seriously undermine the fair and proper administration of justice in criminal law. Cuts of this magnitude are unfair and unjust and impose a greater burden on us than on any other ‘public service sector’.
Two points are involved here: the public interest argument and the private interest argument. The latter doesn’t interest me and will not find much sympathy with the public. But this issue is not about incomes: lawyers are also professionals who want to represent their clients’ interests, not just in court but before they reach it.
For example: it has long been the practice of the Department of Justice to pay defence counsel the same fee as the prosecution. Equality of arms is an important principle, but the Department recently abolished it for criminal trials and imposed a 10% cut on fees paid to defence counsel (ie. 10% less than what is paid to prosecution counsel by the Director of Public Prosecutions). [Edit: I agree with this letter-writer to the Irish Times. Cuts should be equal.]
Quite obviously the only reason that we are very much the ‘poor relations’ in the courts system is because our clients are voiceless and so are we. (My emphasis)
The email seeks support for the CLPU to negotiate terms and conditions of a contract with the Department of Justice for legally aided criminal defence. I would expect that the CLPU will run into competition law issues but the email states that nothing will be done to distort competition.
The email suggests a picket on the courts as a final measure to protest further cuts. This will inevitably be the focus of headlines and the move would be reported by the media as a strike to protect the income of lawyers, rather than a strike to protect the interests of justice. A serious public interest issue is at stake and is unlikely to receive the quality of discussion and debate regularly achieved in the UK.
(As I finalised this blog post, this article published on the Evening Herald website. The headline provides a taste of the tone of coverage to come.)
The timeframe for action is tight, and apparently over 100 lawyers have already indicated an intention to join the CLPU (around 30 of whom are solicitors).
In the meantime, it remains unclear what has become of the last government’s mad proposal to move responsibility for the criminal legal aid system to the Legal Aid Board. However, Brendan Howlin’s Ideas Campaign-style search for solutions has apparently generated the suggestion that inexperienced law graduates “be deployed” to the legal aid system.