Thursday, 22 February 2018

Legal Aid - A Defence (again)

I am convinced it is not by chance that The Secret Barrister’s avatar is a bunny rabbit because only the Duracell Bunny or a close relative could blog as indefatigably as she does which leads to my second conviction namely that she must be a she.  I don’t know her identity but the sheer range of topics covered by her blog are, to my mind, conclusive evidence of a multi-tasker.  One thing she and I share as bloggers is a sense of Sisyphean despair at tackling flagrantly unacceptable misreporting of Legal Aid. 

In the dock today without a hint of a defence is the Daily Mirror.  So frequently has The Secret Barrister had to barbecue this particular canard that her response this time is a thread of tweets referring back to multiple previous explanations of why everything about the story is wrong and why its author and the newspaper’s editor should be hanging their heads in shame.  Exhibiting the masochistic tendency that inspired me to become a criminal barrister in the first place I will start rolling the rock up the hill – AGAIN.

John Worboys committed monstrous crimes.  It is very easy to understand on an emotional level why the expenditure of a single penny of public money on his behalf feels like a flagrant and outrageous waste when there are children living in poverty, hospital corridors full of trolleys and roads full of potholes.  I will try (although sometimes I wonder why) to explain on a rational level why this expenditure is necessary; something perhaps even to be proud of.

First no cash was given to Worboys.  Legal Aid expenditure on his case is money that has been spent on his case not on him.  In a nutshell public money was spent on a public good.

But, I hear you cry, he is monstrous, how am I, a member of the public, benefitting from this expenditure?  Well, imagine for a moment we lived in a society in which those accused of crimes received no Legal Aid at all.  We would not all die overnight as we might if Sizewell B was allowed to meltdown.  But within time the health of society would be imperilled by a very different kind of radiation namely injustice.  Rich wrongdoers would be unconcerned by this change, indeed they could even be beneficiaries of it.  However the innocent rest of us would be placed in real jeopardy.

To illustrate the wickedness of the Mirror’s headline consider an equivalent attack on the NHS.  There are some who argue that the fat should be disentitled to heart surgery, smokers to lung cancer treatment, alcoholics to liver transplants.  However it is possible to be a teetotal, vegan, athlete and require all of those treatments.  Are we really in favour of an NHS that only treats those whose lifestyles are entirely blameless and pure?

To say that you approve of Legal Aid for only the innocent and the deserving is entirely to misunderstand the purpose of Legal Aid and indeed the point of the Criminal Justice System which is to ensure the conviction of the guilty and the acquittal of the innocent.  Convicted criminals can be ordered to pay costs, obviously an effective sanction if they can afford to pay.  If they can’t afford to pay then, yes, we as a society have to foot the bill.  Nobody said civilisation would be free.

Of course it may be that I have wholly misunderstood the true meaning of the Mirror’s attack.  Perhaps they have no issue with the principle of Worboys being granted Legal Aid it is just the sum that is in issue.  After all £166,000 seems a mighty large amount to fritter away on lah-di-dah lawyers for one of society’s dregs.  Perhaps the Mirror would not have balked at £16,600 or maybe its limit would have been £1,660?  If it’s the figure that is causing the outrage come to my chambers and you can show me your workings for a fair and reasonable expenditure of Legal Aid taking account of the seriousness of the allegations, the quantities of evidence served, the extent of the unused material, the number of prison visits required, the ambit of defence evidence to be marshalled, the weeks or months spent in court, the cost of administering a solicitor’s office and a barrister’s chambers and the fact that lawyers need to make a living.  And that is not a living that includes holiday homes in the South of France and school fees that is a living to live on.
Without Legal Aid the blameless will get banged up and monsters will walk among us.  It’s as simple as that.

P.S. If you like this sort of thing but done better buy The Secret Barrister's book: