Last week we all read, with a mixture of quiet resignation, anger, and contempt for what I refuse to call “journalistic values” the propaganda diatribe on the front page of the Daily Mail, regurgitating yet again the wholly misleading claims emanating direct from the MoJ who are privy to the figures, which portray Legal Aid Criminal Practitioners as “Fat Cats.”
On top of that, the Editorial, (NB the editor of the Daily, not the Sunday version) made equally spurious claims under the pretext of responsible editorial comment.
Rachel Bentley, of Trinity Advocates in Exeter saw it for what it was. Spin, parroting the Grayling Party line.
She somehow found another hour or two, on top of the usual 26 hour day that she works on Legal Aid Rates, to write a formal letter of complaint.
She received a reply, saying it was going to be edited. It was.
We publish below, Rachel’s letter, the reply, and the Article as published.
Judge for yourselves!
“I write to make a formal complaint in respect of the biased reporting and failure to offer any balance in the above articles featured in the Daily Mail yesterday.
I am a Solicitor, but also a long term reader of the Mail, so am well aware of the stock take on any report involving legal aid lawyers. However, even I was shocked by the vitriol which poured out of these articles directed at legal aid lawyers generally, many of whom could not be further removed from the very small number whose earnings you set out to highlight.
I cannot dispute the figures you attribute to the individual Firms and Lawyers featured in this article but it did not seek in any way to present the true picture of legal aid Firms in this country. Your front page article commenced “The astonishing earnings of legal aid firms…” as if what followed was representative of the profession as a whole. I am afraid nothing could be further from the truth.
Your editorial then sought to link payments made to Junior Counsel in the Leveson inquiry with the Government plans to slash funding of the general legal aid budget commenting “for far too long the profession as a whole has been enjoying a pay day at our expense”. To link the two issues is utterly misleading.
The legal aid budget is 0.5% of GDP – we who undertake legal aid work are regulated by the Solicitors Regulatory Authority, by peer review and by the Legal Aid Authority (under the auspices of the Ministry of Justice) and are not able to write blank cheques at taxpayer’s expense as your story, and many like it, imply. In fact we are rigorously audited to ensure we are only claiming public money for cases which meet strict criteria – set by Government not by lawyers. Legal aid for Court hearings is not self granted by us but on application to HMCTS which is charged with regulating the grant of it.
We are paid a fixed fee whether a case is completed in a short period of time or days of trial time. It would be a perverse decision to drag out cases for less profit but the myth persists. Similarly the idea that we are fat cats lining our own pockets at taxpayer’s expense. Yes, some individuals do make by anyone’s standards a lot of money from legal aid work – however, the rest (the majority) earn between £20,000 and £40,000 per annum before tax for working a full day, evenings and weekends, usually with no pension or perks. I am not embarrassed to say after many years of study that I would like to earn enough to reflect my professional qualification and to pay my mortgage. In that regard I am no different to anyone else and should not be castigated as such, and yet articles like yours seek to imply I am somehow “enjoying a pay day at taxpayers’ expense”. Legal aid pays a Firm (so deductions need to be made for all office overheads) at £49.00 per hour. How can you possibly say that equates to a gravy train or a “hell of a pay day”.
The reality for many like me is that we work at the absolute margins of profitability and only stay in business out of a sense of wanting to assist our clients and keep our employees in a job. I have personally willingly reduced my own salary to enable my staff to be paid and they have on increasing occasions earned a greater salary than me. I work in a cheap office without running hot water and am about to “downsize” again out of financial necessity in the hope that I can remain in business for another twelve months. I answer the telephone at my office as I am not able to afford to employ a receptionist and type my own letters as I cannot afford a secretary. I am required to work evenings and weekends for no additional pay as suspects are not just arrested in office hours. I undertake the accounts and HR role in my business as well as attending Court daily – my home will be taken if my business fails (as is the nature of Partnership) so there is little option but to strive to make it work whatever the cost may be in terms of stress and ill health.
Your article talks about “howls of anguish from the profession” as if we are simply moaning about how the proposed cutback will affect us personally. This is wrong and when subject to any reasonable analysis ridiculous. If I was concerned about myself I would have utilised my honours degree in business law to stay well away from legal aid work and instead earned undoubtedly much, much more from the corporate and commercial world. No getting up in the middle of the night to attend a Police Station then. Instead I, and many like me, have chosen to enter this branch of the profession as a vocation rather than for any thanks or financial reward. If we didn’t care passionately about what the government proposals put at stake we would simply take our skills elsewhere and leave the great British public to their fate.
Instead we have sought to try to undo the myths which have persisted about us for years in the hope that the public will understand how these proposals could affect them. We seem to be having some success despite the nonsense peddled by some sections of the media as a recent ComRes poll found that eight out of ten people thought legal aid a worthwhile spend and, at the time of writing, over 80,000 people have signed my government e-petition protesting at the proposed cuts.
What is being proposed is an attack on justice itself – precisely the notion scoffed at in your editorial on page 14. Any amount of research by a journalist seeking a credible, unbiased story would have revealed a lot of material explaining precisely what is at stake. Instead the issues raised are simply dismissed with the comment “all they mean is that lawyers will have to compete for contracts like the rest of us.”. Forgive me, but since when did the Daily Mail compete for a contract to be printed? The reality is that the legal profession already has to apply for a contract to undertake legal aid work and has had to do so for many years. What is being proposed is far beyond that.As no-one writing in the Mail yesterday had clearly taken the time to look into the issues let me set them out in the hope that any future reporting on this issue will report both sides of the story. The Government have consulted for only eight weeks regarding the changes they propose to implement next autumn. They are clear that money needs to be saved from the legal aid budget and you will be hard pressed to find any legal aid lawyer who does not accept that we must take our share of the austerity pain. Although we spend not one penny of taxpayer’s money which we are not authorised to spend we accept that there is waste in the criminal justice system which can and should be reduced. The future viability of our existence depends on the Government funding the system so we are not in ignorance of that fact.
However, what is proposed is not simply a requirement that we bid for a contract like everyone else but a wholesale demolition of the legal system with consequences unintended or intentional which deserve to be aired with the people who will most be affected by them.
The Mail vociferously supports those incidences where the system has operated at its worst – when people are locked up by secret Courts, when householders defend their homes from burglars and are then subject to criminal investigation and proceedings or when ridiculous prosecutions or heavy handed Police action is taken for minor “offences” – who do you think your readers turn to, to assist them and protect them when they find themselves on the wrong end of the system at its worst? More often than not it is the “greedy fat cat legal aid lawyer” your article portrays as only interested in his own welfare.
In future that person, if they wish to stay in the profession, will have to undercut other Firms in their area – by at least 17.5% to even be considered for a future contract. They are likely to have to sack staff in order to stay in business and to close offices which can no longer be viable. They will have to amalgamate with other Firms in order to be big enough to survive – but not too big as bigger Firms will actually take a cut in their workload as the Government tries to equalise the work available to all Firms given a contract. They readily accept that they cannot guarantee work so even if a Firm is allowed to continue to operate there will be a grave risk , in the light of falling numbers of prosecutions and increased use of cautions, that they will become bankrupt anyway. They will allow non legal Firms into the market – Eddie Stobart and possibly even G4S – what quality will there be when the Justice system simply becomes just another business enterprise?
The saveukjustice website sets out a number of potential reasons why the Governments approach is dangerous and where savings can be made. There is much material available from Senior members of the Judiciary, Barristers, Solicitors, Human Rights organisations, Expert Witnesses and others if any journalist cares to look. You will no doubt support the view that the risk of the demise of the justice is a hysterical overreaction by the profession – your article states as much – but if you were burgled tonight, defended yourself and your property and found yourself under arrest you would no doubt seek advice and assistance froma lawyer to defend you. You may be able to pay the best in the country to represent you – how ignorant would it be to deny the best representation to any other citizen just because they cannot afford to pay for it themselves. Average income families will be precluded from legal aid under the Government’s proposals – perhaps your readers would be interested to know that. The Justice Minister said that people who enter the Justice system are often “not great connoisseurs of legal skills” ( colloquially known now as “too thick to pick”). I do not recall reading any comment from your paper on this gross insult to the British public by an elected Minister of State.
Surely the job of any responsible newspaper is to inform and educate – why are you not telling your readers of the potential impact on them? By way of analogy, if a reader in Devon or Cornwall became ill would they be content to have a doctor chosen for them from one of the ten GP hubs permitted to exist? Who they were obliged to be treated by whether they had faith in them or not? Who may be based in a separate County from where they live? Who was the lowest paid, cheapest qualified person the umbrella organisation could employ and still claim to offer a “quality service”? Of course not. This will be the reality of the provision of legal services under the Government proposals – for the guilty and for the innocent.
One of, if not the, bravest pieces of journalism I have ever read was the Mail’s campaign to bring the killers of Stephen Lawrence to justice. In naming those believed to have been responsible the Mail took a stand which few would ever have been prepared to take. Justice mattered for Stephen and his Family. As a newspaper which undoubtedly understood the concept of justice and the importance of it for the Family, and for Society as a whole, I am appalled that you would denigrate those who spend their working lives trying to protect the same values for everyone.
Well that was was Rachel wrote.
This is letter she received in reply
and this is how they edited it….
(Again click on the image, and then double click to zoom)