The legal aid cuts: why I turned my back on the law

[This article was previously published in legal magazine The Clapham Omnibus from Benham Publishing.]

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Today I’m a freelance writer. Three short years ago, I was an enthusiastic criminal defence solicitor. I represented people at the police station. I did trials at the magistrates’ courts and a handful of hearings at the crown courts, too. I even won my first trial.

I had no idea that redundancy was looming, that I was about to have a head-on collision with the Conservative government’s unrelenting public sector cuts.

There was less work. Fewer cases going through the police stations and the courts. The cuts to the criminal justice system were filtering through and hitting defence firms like ours. It’s not because fewer crimes were being committed. It’s because the police and the courts were too squeezed to handle them properly. We had a case where a defendant stabbed someone. Instead of being hauled through the courts on a grievous bodily harm charge, he got a police caution, a telling-off: “Please don’t stab anyone again.”

As a result, my firm found itself chin-deep in a financial quandary. There was less work to be done, and the tightly budgeted Legal Aid Agency was failing to make prompt payments for the work we were doing. The only solution was redundancies. I still remember the phone call I got from my boss: “sorry – you made the cut.”

The public has no idea what’s going on. The cuts are having a detrimental impact on justice, but the general populous doesn’t care. To them, anyone who gets arrested is guilty of something. Not until they get arrested for something they didn’t do and have to experience our deteriorating system for themselves will they realise.

The general public doesn’t care about the lawyers either. They bundle all of them into the same box. A box labelled ‘fat cats’. People still aren’t alive to the gargantuan gap between corporate lawyers and criminal lawyers. Corporate lawyers earn hundreds of thousands of pounds a year, millions in some cases. But thousands of legal aid lawyers are earning less than £30,000. Some even earn less than the minimum wage. Chairman of the Bar Alistair MacDonald QC said:

“Half of those doing criminal work earned less than £50,000 in 2012-13 before overheads – a net income of £27,000 a year.”

Lorry drivers are paid more than this. Over the last couple of years, the legal aid cuts have brought about the first strikes in the history of the British legal profession. This isn’t because criminal lawyers are desperately trying to make sure they have enough cash for a new Mercedes every year – as many misinformed and uneducated people still accuse. That’s never been the case. As the figures show, compared to a lot of professions – and all non-legal aid lawyers – criminal lawyers are poor. The strikes are because they’re worried about two things: the degradation of the justice system and being able to feed themselves.

What’s worse is that the figures above are from before the latest round of cuts. A further 17.5% has been sliced off the fees for legal aid cases – which were already too low. Now, if someone gets arrested in Gloucester for example, the firm dealing will get paid a paltry £140.25 for the police station case. If the client is difficult, has mental health problems, needs an interpreter or raises some kind of complex legal issue for the lawyer to deal with, it’s still £140.25. In fact, the firm has to spend more than ten hours working on the case to get paid any more than the fixed fee. So if the firm’s just under the ten hour threshold, that’s a frankly laughable £14 an hour for the solicitor’s work.

I haven’t even mentioned the most controversial part of the legal aid changes: the new contract system. The number of criminal legal aid contracts awarded to firms has been slashed from 1,600 to 527, a move that is going to cause hundreds of criminal firms to go bust. Basically the government wants fewer solicitors handling more cases. It’s the same demand they’ve been making of the whole public sector: work harder for less pay.

Yet all barristers and solicitors – regardless of what area of law they go into – have to go through six to seven years of very expensive studying and rigorous training before they qualify. They have to be intelligent, academic, work hard and be indomitable. They deserve to be well paid. The reality is, criminal lawyers are only going to become poorer and more overworked as the Conservative government continues its ill-thought-out crusade.

This is why I’ve left law behind. All criminal lawyers are at huge risk of redundancy and pay cuts. It’s not a viable industry to be a part of, and it’s not about to become one soon. After I lost my job, I practised employment law and civil litigation for a year, but something else was calling to me. Writing. I’d been a writer of fiction since I was young, and it was during my time at my last law firm that copywriting caught my interest. So I trained and qualified with the Blackford Centre for Copywriting, and the rest is history.

I only hope that there is a light at the end of the tunnel for my friends and former colleagues still trapped in this eternally squeezed profession. At the moment I feel like they’re stuck on a sinking ship – and I made it aboard the life raft.

As a professional copywriter and former lawyer, Christopher Berry is uniquely placed to write articles, websites, brochures and blogs for law firms. If you’d like him to write for you, please contact him on 07857 968707 or cr_berry@outlook.com. You can visit his website at christopherwritescopy.com.

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