20th June 2013
First person piece about the proposed changes to Criminal Legal Aid
Rupert Hawke, Managing Director of Cartwright King, who have offices in Nottingham, Derby, Leicester, Birmingham, Sheffield and Newcastle Gateshead.
Criminal Legal Aid continues to be in the spotlight with the Government talking about the changes it plans to make. As a result legal firms involved in this type of work are coming under close scrutiny, with many being criticised for being paid too much for undertaking the work. However those who are quick to criticise, simply don’t know all the facts.
When the Ministry of Justice recently published information about the fees earned by firms from criminal Legal Aid work, it failed to put these fees into context.
The fees quoted were income not profit and inclusive of VAT and have to cover costs such as salaries and overheads.
These fees have to pay for all the work done by our fee earners but not all the costs are recoverable from Legal Aid because the rules do not allow it. Added to which there have been no increase in legal rates since 1997 — in fact there have been several reductions.
We have 70 lawyers practising law in our criminal teams throughout our 6 offices and providing a vital public service. Our team consists of all staff from junior solicitors through to very senior barristers and Higher Court Advocates with many years experience defending those charged with the most serious offences.
We have had to invest heavily in IT to enable our team to work efficiently and effectively and the criminal team in particular has very little administrative support with our lawyers producing all their own letters and documents.
In truth the world of criminal legal aid work is about as far removed from the image of the ‘fat-cat’ lawyer as it can be. It is unglamorous with lawyers working long hours, often at antisocial times, dealing with the most challenging and difficult members of our society. Many of these people are also vulnerable or unwell and who find themselves sucked into the criminal machine simply because they have fallen through the safety nets that society provides to protect them.
These people have to be given time and treated with great care and we endeavour to do that. But the rates allowed by legal aid are simply not reflective of the pastoral work a criminal solicitor has to put into a case in order to get it into a state where it can be safely and properly addressed by the courts.
I do sometimes call into question the resources we have to allocate to dealing with cases and I wonder at the amount of unpaid work that our firm carries out year on year without thanks.
When it comes to police station work, we get paid £200 per case including VAT and travel. This figure is designed to reward us for attending a police station for up to ten hours at any time of the day or night. If our client is bailed to return to the police station on another date we get no extra fee for this. Cases where suspects have to attend three or four times before a decision whether to charge them are not uncommon.
The fee has to cover the salary of the solicitor attending as well as overheads, taxi or mileage to the station — fast response is imperative — and overtime if the call is out of hours. There is no additional fee for any work done to progress the case outside the police station.
Some lawyers are very well paid but the market shows that a newly qualified criminal solicitor generally earns less than £30,000 gross with many still paying off student loans built up during 6 years of study before qualification.
A Duty Solicitor with several years’ post-qualification experience is unlikely to earn more than £35,000 per annum. In order for them to maintain their qualifications and keep abreast of a legal system that changes every week they are required to undergo expensive continuing professional development and training.
It is nonsense to believe that every individual who is arrested and/or charged with a criminal offence is guilty. The only chance the innocent have in facing up to the seemingly limitless resources of the State in pursuing them are the solicitors and barristers who do this work because they know it has to be done. The Government needs to be thankful to them for their dedication to a fair and just system. It also needs to be mindful that the true cost of a fair and just system is having to be met by law firms geared up to providing the service and whose margins in reality are wafer-thin.