As part of his controversial reforms to Criminal Legal Aid, Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary, wants to deny the right to choose their own lawyer to anyone arrested who is poor and, therefore, needs to rely on legal aid. This strikes at the heart of a suspect’s right to proper representation. It also runs counter to the usual Tory mantra that choice in public services is essential. A powerful incentive to providing a good service is removed, if a client is allocated to a lawyer and then cannot leave them.
When asked about this by the Law Gazette last week, Grayling said:- “I don’t believe that most people who find themselves in our criminal justice system are great connoisseurs of legal skills. We know the people in our prisons and who come into our courts often come from the most difficult and challenged backgrounds.”
Such a comment would be crass coming from any politician. Grayling, however, is the Justice Secretary. He ought, therefore, to be concerned about justice for all and not least for those “from the most difficult and challenged backgrounds”. His assertion that such people should be denied the right to choose who represents them because they are not capable of making the choice is breath-taking in its assumptions and factually wrong.
Who are the people that Grayling wants to deny choice to? Based on my own experience as a criminal solicitor some years ago, a significant number of them are likely to be innocent. Most of those who get involved in the criminal justice system are “mad”, “sad” or “bad” – and those who might be considered “bad” are by far the smallest of these three categories.
And who will these lawyers be, on whom clients will have to rely to establish their innocence or to plead in mitigation? You will have seen the lorries belonging to the Eddie Stobart haulage company. Incredibly, Eddie Stobart is a leading contender in bidding for the new criminal legal aid contracts. There are to be 400 new “mega-firms”. Contracts are likely to go to the lowest bidders. Serco, G4S, Capita and Tesco are all rumoured to be planning to bid.
Grayling claims that the choice of lawyer does not matter. This is plainly nonsense and particularly so in our adversarial system of justice. I have no doubt that Grayling would not take this attitude for himself or someone close to him. It has been notable how the recent rich defendants before the courts, Chris Huhne, Vicky Pryce, Stuart Hall, Rebekah Brooks etc have all chosen to employ top QCs.
Equality before the law is as essential a pillar of democracy as the right to vote every five years. In many ways there is already one legal system for the rich and another for the poor in the UK but Grayling’s reforms will seriously exacerbate the divide.
We are becoming a less decent and civilised country. One more like the USA with its notoriously two-tiered justice. One that does not much care about miscarriages of justice if they happen to those from the “most difficult and challenged backgrounds”.
Grayling is trying to bring in his reforms without any parliamentary debate. If you think that, at the least, MPs should debate them, then please consider signing the online petition to “save UK Justice" at http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/48628No. 311