Legal aid reforms will leave the poor with little choice

Royal service? Eddie Stobart is among the firms expected to bid for legal aid contracts. Andrew Milligan /PA Archive

If you were in a fix and looking for a lawyer, would you think of bringing in haulage contractor, Eddie Stobart, to argue your case? Or Tesco, for that matter? And while G4S may be experienced at running prisons, you are more likely to be looking for someone to keep you out of jail.

But these three companies are merely the more unusual names among those expected to bid for legal aid contracts once the government’s proposed changes come into force.

As it stands, the criminal legal aid system, in particular, is cost-effective and efficient; if you’re arrested you get free legal advice. You can ask for your own lawyer; or if you have none, or if he or she is unavailable, you can have a duty solicitor. If you are charged with an offence you can choose whether to be represented by whoever initially advised you, or by someone else.

The people who have most cause to access free legal aid are what I will call “the precariat” - people in the bottom 30-40% of the socio-economic scale who struggle to get by and have less ability to choose. When hardship strikes they have no choice whether to borrow, as their household budgets have no slack and they often have no choice over from whom to borrow (which is why we have seen the rise of payday lenders).

These are the people who will be affected most by the changes proposed by the justice secretary, Chris Grayling (his proposals also include vicious cuts to civil legal aid and legal aid for prisoners but there is no space here to detail them).

May the cheapest firm win

In a consultation that ends today the government proposes a new bidding system for firms wanting to do criminal legal aid. Its main features will be:

  1. Prices that have to be at least 17.5% lower than now - and fees for not guilty pleas will be cut disproportionately.

  2. A cut in the number of firms contracted for criminal legal aid from about 1,600 to 400.

  3. Competition almost entirely on price alone and no attempt will be made to ensure quality of service once contracts are awarded.

  4. The elimination of choice for suspects and defendants.

The only way firms will be able to make criminal legal aid profitable will be to pay low wages to lawyers, to employ even worse-paid paralegals with no legal qualifications to do much of the work and to demand employees get through the work more quickly and with even less investigation and preparation than now.

The pressure on defendants to plead guilty will increase. The lawyer-client relationship will be destroyed, as clients will not be able to change their lawyer if they are not satisfied with their work, and every time they appear in court they will be represented by a different firm.

This free-market government knows that a free market in legal services will keep salary costs at present or higher levels. So it is rigging the it. Middle-income lawyers, mostly serving the precariat, will have to choose: preserve their standard of living by serving the rich or slide towards the precariat because they think that they, too, deserve the benefit of the rule of law.

The end of choice

We may increasingly see idealistic lawyers in their twenties working for the poor and then moving towards serving the rich as they get older. Maybe this is OK. Or maybe we don’t care what lawyers earn at any stage of their lives. What does matter is the quality of service these lawyers will be giving poor people who will not be allowed to drop a rubbish lawyer and choose a different one.

Harsh verdict :justice secretary Chris Grayling wants to save millions with his reforms. Anthony Devlin/PA Wire

At present the precariat at least have nominal choice as to legal, financial, health and education services, it’s not all a mirage. But as far as this government is concerned, they don’t even deserve this minimal amount of respect. The poor will be defended by people who, whether they care about civil liberties or not, will not be allowed by their firms to give their cases the time they need.

The government would doubtless abolish even this minimal legal aid system if the European Convention on Human Rights did not prevent it. Imagine what will happen when the government, if it is re-elected, withdraws from the Convention, as it says it wants to do.

Meanwhile, the “choice” that is regarded as an essential feature of citizenship is deemed to be undeserved by the precariat. The umbrella of the law will no longer provide them with even the inadequate shelter it does at present. The undeserving poor are becoming sub-citizens. How much more humiliation will be heaped on them while this coalition continues? And how much does the comfortably-off majority in our society care?