Legal aid cuts have made worthy causes financially worthless for lawyers.
My firm, Bindmans, recently acted in a case involving an online relationship between two teenagers. Like countless other young couples, the pair had spent many hours texting one another and swapping picture messages.
Sadly, the relationship did not last and, several years later, it turned sour. It was then that the defendant was arrested and his phone seized and analysed. When explicit pictures of his ex-girlfriend (which she had willingly sent to him) were discovered, he was charged with possession of indecent images of a child – she being under 18 (and, indeed, under 16 in some) at the time the pictures were sent.
Having pleaded guilty at his first court appearance on advice from other lawyers, the defendant was promptly informed that he must sign the sex offender register – an automatic requirement following a conviction for this offence. As a young adult himself, he found himself subject to contact restrictions with his peers. It was then that he decided to approach us.
Our barrister, Sara Williams from Doughty Street Chambers, went back to the magistrates’ court arguing that the guilty plea should be withdrawn and a not guilty plea entered. We were successful in withdrawing the guilty plea and a trial date was set in the Crown court.
We quickly requested that the Crown Prosecution Service review its decision to prosecute this case. It was more than six months after taking on the case and almost 11 months since the charge, however, before it finally did. In the interim, Williams had been to court on several occasions, including to make arguments that the prosecution itself was an abuse of the judicial process. Just a matter of weeks before the trial date, the prosecution decided that it was not in the public interest to pursue the case.
The prosecution was discontinued and a not guilty verdict recorded.
A success, then, for this client – turning a guilty plea in the magistrates’ court into a discontinuance in the Crown court – and for the rights of consenting teenagers, but at what cost?
The legal team carried out a great deal of work to achieve the result. Williams travelled a total of 640 miles to and from court for hearings, at a cost of £128. It was a significant case – in terms of the law, morality and, above all, for a young client at a pivotal stage in his life. In total over 70 hours were spent fighting the prosecution.
The client’s case was funded by legal aid. Since the prosecution’s decision to discontinue was just before the trial, no ‘trial fee’ was incurred, meaning that the total litigator fee, for Bindmans, was £330.33 plus VAT. That’s just £4.66 per hour. The barrister received a total of £194 plus VAT (or £66 after travel costs), a rate of just £1.50 per hour.
Compare this to the London living wage, which was raised to £9.15 per hour on 3 November 2014. This successful and just conclusion attracted up to £8 per hour less than what is deemed to be a ‘liveable wage’ in London. If the case had gone to trial, we estimate that the litigator fee received would have been around £670 for Bindmans, and around £1,600 for Williams. By saving the public purse money and avoiding wasting court time and expense we, as legal aid lawyers, find ourselves penalised even further.
It gets worse. Since this case concluded, the Ministry of Justice has announced further cuts to the fixed fees for advocates and litigators in cases like this, which are expected to be implemented in January 2016.
With legal aid fees dwindling year on year, cases such as this are a stark reminder of the importance of protecting legal aid. It is concerning to all with a sense of right and wrong that legal aid cuts might begin to force lawyers to stop fighting for these worthy, but financially worthless, causes.
Samantha Broadley is a solicitor at Bindmans