Seventh letter to the Lord Chancellor, Secretary of State for Justice,
Mr Chris Grayling,
2nd July 2013.
Dear Lord Chancellor,
Congratulations, the U-turn you have announced on client choice for criminal defendants on legal aid is a master-stoke. As we discussed last week, in your bunker under Pontefract Castle, the concession has had a number of very positive advantages:
1. The hostile members of the Justice Select Committee have been thrown off balance and now have only 24 hours to develop a new tack for questioning you when you give evidence tomorrow. It may help restore your reputation as a more sure-footed politician, after being hopelessly outmanoeuvred over the last few weeks. Your letter to Sir Alan Beith on the issue yesterday almost made you sound statesmanlike: “However, I have heard clearly from the Law Society and other respondents that they regard client choice as fundamental to the effective delivery of criminal legal aid. I am therefore looking again at this issue, and expect to make changes to allow a choice of solicitor for clients receiving legal aid”. No wonder you were able to write in the letter to Sir Alan “I look forward to discussing the proposals with the committee.” Ha! That’s not what you said to me last week in Pontefract (when I ran out of tissues trying to dry your self-pitying tears).
2. Further, it confuses those who stated that the consultation was a sham.
3. Those Conservative MPs who spoke against your plans at the Parliamentary debate in the Commons last week, which you wisely elected to avoid whilst electioneering in Bedford, have been brought back onside (and therefore back into the broad church of Grayling supporters in advance of any future party leadership campaign). The potential candidates on the right of the party, remember, are few so your toadying to the Treasury on cuts in the spending review and your right wing ideological plans for privatisation of some of the courts are crucial to you now. By saying “the rationale for proposing this change [the removal of client choice]…is not a policy objective in its own right” shows to the party faithful that it is not a real concession but merely a little tweak.
4. Also, the petition having reached 100,000 signatories has been dealt with. It was worded thus: “The MOJ should not proceed with their plans to reduce access to justice by depriving citizens of legal aid or the right to representation by the Solicitor of their choice.” You were never going to abolish legal aid and you have conceded on the right to representation by a solicitor of choice. Job done. The petition may have become an irrelevance.
5. And best of all it has divided the opposition. The Law Society could see your concession as their victory and then concede on everything else you want. (Ken Clarke made some minor concessions to get the bulk of the LASPO proposals through; this has the potential to be your pacifying decoy.) Our Pontefract strategy would then have worked! In the last 24 hours, since your announcement, duty solicitors have turned on small solicitors firms, small solicitors firms have turned on the large firms. All have turned on the Law Society. There is the delicious danger that they will all fight like rats in a bag for their livelihood and wages. Before, the opposition was united on the ground that removing client choice was not in the public interest (for the simple reason that it was not in the public interest). And you saying to the Commons today, at Justice questions, that the Bar Council did not show “the same degree of constructive engagement” as the Law Society can only enhance this divide and rule strategy.
The beauty of all of this is that the other objectionable parts of your plans will be able to pass through unhindered and unnoticed:
• The ‘residence test’ which leaves the Government free to act unlawfully anywhere outside Britain, with its victims denied access to justice. And provides those trafficked into this country and forced to act as prostitutes with no redress if arrested.
• Prisoners (including children) in custody will not be able to challenge unjust Government decisions affecting their incarceration.
• The lowering of experts fees by 20% (on top of the reduction from 2011) that will have the effect of reducing experts of the highest calibre being available to the courts, as criticised by Her Majesty’s Council of Circuit Judges.
• The fee tapering proposals which sets the same fee for guilty plea as for trial that will provide a financial incentive for some lawyers to ignore their clients best interest and pressurise them into pleading guilty, even if they are innocent, described by the Bar Standards Board as a “high risk strategy”.
• The reduction in the use of QCs and junior counsel for serious and complex cases, even though the Recorder of Leeds Peter Collier QC said that, in his experience as a judge who presides over murder trials, two counsel often “saves time and money”.
• The 17.5% cut in fees across the board, that totally ignores the 71% of the public who are concerned that the proposed legal aid cuts will lead to innocent people being wrongly convicted (ComRes poll 21st May 2013).
• Denying legal aid for judicial review for cases until they achieve permission (justified on those figures shown to be inaccurate by the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law), a proposal that has been called “unconscionable” by the 150 Treasury Counsel in their letter to the Attorney-General.
Let us hope the broad coalition opposing your legal aid plan doesn’t step back and re-concentrate on your remaining unjust proposals. Let us hope the above proposals, that are clearly NOT in the public interest, slip through the net. Let us hope that the opposition argues within about who was, and who was not, present at the Law Society meetings with you and who is stabbing whom in the back. Let us hope that they don’t get a grip, calm down and concentrate on the proposals you are still standing by that are wrong in principle. Let us hope they don’t see the woods for the trees.
I see that you’ve been sent a letter by the Information Commissioner’s Office asking you to obey the law following your website being spotted as one that may have unlawfully gathered the data of visitors without their consent (via computer cookies). How on earth are you expected to know the law, you’re only the Lord Chancellor for heaven’s sake? My imps are scurrying within the internet server at the MOJ offices in Petty France now to resolve the issue. Whilst there, as you asked me to arrange, they are frenetically deleting emailed responses to the consultation paper. It is a bit awkward, I agree, that some of the lawyers who responded to the paper ‘tracked’ their emails so that our deleting them has now been spotted. Anyway the MOJ press release claiming technical glitches and you saying you are ‘confident’ seems to have held the line, for now. You keep telling people to re-send their emails and we’ll keep deleting them. These lawyers are a deviously suspicious bunch. How could they not have confidence in your confidence?
My chief imp has, at your request during the Pontefract bunker summit, placed the musty robes of one of your Lord Chancellor predecessors on eBay for £454. The late Earl of Kilmuir (Sir David Maxwell Fife, when he was Attorney-General) was a fine predecessor of yours (Lord Chancellor 1954-1962). He refused a plea made to him by Derek Bentley thereby allowing him to hang, despite the jury recommending clemency and a similar petition from 200 MPs, and Bentley having a mental age of 11. Those were the days! That, my friend, is how you deal with a troublesome petition. However he was not all good, I see that he was one of the people who drafted the European Convention on Human Rights. So you are quite right to dump his robes, as poetic inhuman and degrading treatment, onto the market place for dressing-up clothes. Spend the £454 wisely.
Finally, my imps are, as we speak, delivering favourable planted questions in brown envelopes to Nick De Bois (C, Enfield North) and Rehman Chishti (C, Gillingham) your two most favourable henchmen on the Justice Select Committee. Good luck tomorrow.
Yours, already in position under Sir Alan’s chair with a spike,