In April the Government announced plans to reform the criminal justice system by inviting firms to tender for criminal defence services. Bids will only be accepted if they are less than 17.5% below current fees and, in our area, bidders will have to cover the whole of Devon & Cornwall. No law firm in North Devon can bid because none cover that widespread area and none are currently making anywhere near 17.5% profit from criminal law. In order to bid they would have to operate at a loss and that is something which law firms are not allowed to do by their regulatory body.
Without those lawyers, who will represent the community? The tender is open to any firm, not just law firms, and the government have said they will welcome bids from large national, non-law firms, such as the haulier Eddie Stobart. To attract these firms the government has sweetened the deal with the promise of an instant market share. Currently you can choose your solicitor, in future you will be allocated to a successful bidder and you will not be able to sack them.
You may not want to be represented by a supermarket chain who make a vast profit from selling bananas but have no experience of the inside of a police station, or G4S who may have made a mess of the Olympics but promise to do better when it comes to your liberty. However there is no incentive for them to do better. There is every incentive for them to cut corners. They will have to, in order to make a profit. You can’t sack them so they don’t need to impress you by offering sound advice and going the extra mile.
The reforms are the responsibility of The Lord Chancellor, Chris Grayling, who, himself, is new to the legal system. Odd for a Lord Chancellor not to be a lawyer but it explains why he does not understand the ruinous consequences for rural areas like North Devon. We cannot expect a history graduate with a background in public relations and television production who only entered politics in 2001 to grasp the enormity of what he plans. Based in the safe Conservative seat of Esher, he has tried his hand at various government departments before being appointed Lord Chancellor. He is a rising star and a smooth talker but he has little feel for justice.
The British justice system is admired the world over because the little man is given a fighting chance against the State which accuses him. Mr. Grayling’s legacy will be to damage that system beyond repair.
So who do I feel sorry for? Not for the lawyers, they will be alright. Some will retire, some will retrain, some will leave the law altogether. All will finally get a good night’s sleep, uninterrupted by calls to the police station. Not for the likes of Tesco, they will probably make a loss but they can afford it. Not for Mr. Grayling, he has his eyes on a bigger prize and this will be just another bad memory, like his brush with the expenses scandal.
I feel sorry for our community in North Devon which once again will find its services depleted. I feel sorry for our young men and women who aspire with vocational zeal to be barristers and solicitors only to be told there is no future in criminal law. I feel sorry for those who don’t expect to be arrested, who have no reason to think they will be accused, who think this will not affect them or their family. When they need a lawyer, who will be there?