Am I the only solicitor worried about the future of criminal litigation in this country? I see fewer young solicitors becoming involved in criminal work. The reasons why would seem to be simple. The remuneration and conditions of practice cannot attract new people.
In virtually every other branch of the law, a young solicitor can work a roughly nine-to-five day. They are certainly not dragged out of bed in the early hours to go to a smelly police cell and sit waiting for ages to see a client. Solicitors are then expected to take a short ‘disclosure’ from a police officer, who wants to tell us as little as possible, and then advise our clients on something that may well have a profound impact on their life. What are we paid for this? £171.06, to cover time spent travelling and waiting. That is the fee paid to firms in Skegness, out of which they have to fund office, insurance and administration costs. We have no say but we have to turn out, otherwise we lose our duty solicitor status altogether. We then have to go to work the next day.
Question: if we were to turn out a plumber to fix a broken toilet, how much would their charges be? Were our car to break down in the middle of nowhere and need a tow in from a local garage, how much would that be? I know that 10 years ago the standard out-of-hours charge for a tow-in off the motorway was over £300 and I dread to think what it is now.
But we are solicitors with university degrees, postgraduate diplomas and very expensive extra accreditation. Yet we are only worth £52 per hour and then only when we have worked on the same job for more than 10 hours. Before that there is the standard charge of £171.06, which can reduce our hourly rate to just over £17 per hour. We also do court duty work for the grand sum of £53.85 per hour. Yes, I agree it seems reasonable; until you realise that there are all the admin costs to be taken out before we are paid. For this we have to go into court and, in a five-hour period, see perhaps 10 individuals.
We have partial files given to us by the Crown Prosecution Service which are frequently an inch thick. We are expected to read these files and absorb the content, take instructions from the client, give advice on the strength of their case and plea, prepare case management papers to the standards that the court is expecting, and then represent the client in court. We do this knowing that should we make any slight mistake, either in the advice or in the protocols, we are likely to face severe retribution from the courts or worse.
We also have the luxury of assisting clients who are able to give us advanced notice and we have some idea of the case they are facing. Of course, no matter how large the file, the CPS will not provide advanced disclosure until the day of court; they are far too busy and we will just have to learn to cope. We have to deal with trials and all other kinds of court hearing, all of which are highly contentious.
Our clients are some of the most needy in society and their needs are immediate. They are frequently not the most pleasant or easiest people to deal with, but they deserve respect and a proper level of professional attention. Although they may have committed some very serious offences, they still have rights and need to have those rights protected by independent solicitors. Surely the time has come for fairness to extend to criminal practitioners?
Terry Boston, Skegness