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Coffee House

Harry Mount is wrong: Chris Grayling’s legal aid reforms will damage justice

9 June 2013

5:07 PM

9 June 2013

5:07 PM

I just wonder how long Harry Mount has been waiting to put his boot into the Bar. Having a first-class degree from Oxford, membership of the Bullingdon Club and then getting a pupillage in a top class set of chambers, it must have been devastating to his well-nurtured ego to have been turned down for a tenancy.

His piece in this week’s Spectator was a masterpiece of bitterness and bile. It was a travesty of what is really happening.

There are no fat fees at the criminal Bar. Far from spiralling out of control the criminal legal aid budget has been cut by a third from 2006/7 and fees  between 46 and 36 per cent, depending on the type of case. And as for the 90 QCs who are millionaires? Don’t look to the criminal bar to find them. They will be the commercial fat cats or government-appointed lawyers.

Look at Leveson. Did the Ministry of Justice object to the mouthwatering fees? Of course not. Or the Bloody Sunday Inquiry where most barristers became millionaires. And who paid their fees? The taxpayer.

If only Harry had done a little bit of research he would have seen that Grayling is dismantling our revered system of justice and plunging a dagger into the rule of law.

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For the party that believes in supporting small businesses he will be throwing over a thousand firms of solicitors to the wolves. He wants the number of providers to be cut from 1,600 to 400. Soon the high streets will longer offer family solicitors. They won’t be able to compete with the corporate bloodsuckers like Stobbards, G4s, Serco and even the Coop running our legal system. They will have to operate at 17.5 per cent less than they are now.

Welcome to sweatshop law.

And for a government that believes in choice in health and in education Grayling doesn’t believe in it for those who are accused of committing a crime. There will be be no choice of solicitor or barrister if you are arrested interviewed and tried. A layer of bureaucracy will decide whom you will have to represent you. What does that mean? That there will be no incentive for these sweatshop lawyers to do a good job for you. Quality will disappear. Whatever happened to the Conservative belief in competition and the market?

But the most disgraceful and insidious proposal of all is for the new breed of inexperienced lawyers to be given a financial incentive to persuade their clients to plead guilty. They will be paid the same for a trial as for a plea. Imagine the dodgy and loaded advice. Imagine the pressures to hit targets. And imagine the injustice. The  independent Criminal Bar will cease to exist within a year. Where will the vulnerable, the week and the innocent get advice? Well, not from the experts in murder, fraud and rape. We will be gone. And what does it matter when Grayling says that those brought before the courts are ‘not connoisseurs of legal expertise’. Well, they would damn well need to be if they were a nurse of a teacher wrongly accused. But choice will be gone. Who cares?

The so-called consultation period had been a dishonest farce. We were given eight weeks to respond. Michael Turner QC the chairman of the Criminal Bar Association has put forward a plan that can save the MoJ £2 billion when the Treasury have only asked for £220m. Grayling refuses to even speak to him.

I have been at the Bar for 36 years and was was a Conservative MP for 14. I have never seen the judiciary, the Bar and solicitors united in their revulsion at anything. But these proposals which will end fair access to justice (unless, of course you are the government or rich) and fair trials, have brought us together as never before.

MPs are too supine and terrified of their constituents to do anything other than trot out the MoJ line. I won’t say ‘the Conservative line’ as these policies would make  Margaret Thatcher spin in her grave, put a smile on the face of Mr Putin and give Mr Mugabe a spring in his step.

But Harry, old son, feel free to make fun of the execution of the profession in which you failed. But what does it matter? For you privileged types, not a jot.

Jerry Hayes was Conservative MP for Harlow from 1983 until 1997. He returned to practising criminal law afterwards.

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