PCC Blog 116

The idea of a poor lawyer seems like a contradiction in terms; but not anymore.

We need to qualify that, however, since it all depends on what sort of lawyer we are talking about. There are lawyers and lawyers. Those working in commercial law or tax law, for example, can command considerable fees.  But for those who are more junior barristers practising in the criminal courts, the median income in their first few years – according to the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) – is £12,200 per annum, less than the minimum wage. As one barrister put it last week, ‘I earned more when I was a fork-lift truck driver.’

The reason criminal barristers earn so little is quite simply because they are dependent on fees paid from legal aid (government funding) and this support has been frozen and cut for the last few years. Their earnings have been so seriously eroded that many have now left the criminal bar for other jobs. The period of the lock-downs and restrictions due to Covid was particularly disastrous because courts were shut or activity reduced and the barristers, being self-employed, found their income falling drastically. According to the Times, more than 80% incurred debt or used savings to get through.

The government promised a review of fees and earlier this year Sir Christopher Bellamy, who led the review, proposed a 15% fee increase. But the CBA, representing the barristers, rejected this as insufficient for the profession to recover and attract new barristers.

Barristers have been taking ‘days of action’ every fortnight since July, but they have now voted to withdraw their labour indefinitely from 5 September.

I am not sure the public realises yet how serious this is going to be for policing and the justice system.

  • Backlogs. Even now there is a backlog of court cases nationally of around 60,000. This can only grow. It was already an issue before Covid, but became acute as a result. An indefinite strike by criminal barristers can only add to the problem. 
  • Victims. If you are the victim of a serious crime – such as rape – the longer you have to wait for your case to come to trial, the more likely you are to cease co-operating with the police. You just get emotionally wrung out and want everything to stop. This is one reason why so many rape cases do not go to trial. This can only get worse and in turn that will make other victims less willing to come forward.
  • Witnesses. The longer the time between a crime happening and a witness being asked to give evidence in court, the more difficult it becomes for them to recall what happened. Memory fades and becomes less reliable, and that will be exploited.
  • Trials. There is a serious risk, therefore, of trials collapsing and this will undermine confidence in the justice system more generally.
  • Suspects. Those accused of crimes may be innocent. But they need their day in court to prove it. Relationships, jobs, reputations are all threatened in the meantime. It is simply unjust for an accused person to have something hanging over them for years.

But the barristers may have inadvertently thrown up an unhelpful smoke screen.

The strike may be used to deflect attention away from the wider issue: the chronic underinvestment in the criminal justice system. The danger is that ministers, the media and the public will blame all the woes of criminal justice – the backlogs and the delays – on the striking barristers with the suggestion being that if they had not been on strike, all would have been well. But nothing could be further from the truth. The strike is a symptom of a more general malaise not its cause.

Meanwhile, the long drawn-out saga of the leadership election is piling up backlogs of its own – a multiplicity of issues that are waiting for a new prime minister and a new government. This, alas, is just one more.

Crime and conscience

What could trouble the conscience of a hardened criminal, or those who give them tacit support, so that they might radically change their behaviour?  The Chief Constable of Merseyside gave us an answer this week in the press conference she held the day after the murder of nine-year-old Olivia Pratt-Korbel in her own home.

Chief Constable Kennedy began by articulating, and articulating very powerfully, the feelings not just of those on Merseyside, but of the whole nation when she spoke about the shock and revulsion we all felt. She went on to appeal to the community, including the criminal community and those around them, to ‘do the right thing’ and enable the killer to be found and brought to justice.

On the face of it, this seemed a forlorn hope as far as the criminal gangs were concerned. After all, violence is part of normal life as they defend their drug markets or settle scores. But here the Chief Constable said ‘boundaries had been crossed’. In other words, if there are some acts of violence that even the consciences of gang members are troubled by, then this must be one. For many of us, it is already a familiar theme – the redemptive power of innocent suffering. The death of a nine-year-old through an act of wanton recklessness is such an act, troubling even the most hardened of consciences.

The Chief Constable’s appeal may work and it may cause some to reflect more widely on the moral bankruptcy of the criminal lifestyle. The trouble is that unless we have regular reminders, memory and its attendant feelings, fades.

Why Rishi gets my vote

On Monday I received as PCC for South Yorkshire a letter from National Highways – the body responsible for major roads – telling me that ‘the latest data from our Smart Motorways Second Year Progress Report shows that, overall, in terms of serious or fatal casualties, smart motorways are our safest roads’. Since I have written to them before about why I think their data is flawed, the letter seemed rather provocative.

Then, shortly afterwards, one of the two candidates for the leadership of the Conservative Party and so Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, was telling the Daily Mail that ‘Smart Motorways are unpopular because they are unsafe’. ‘Data shows,’ he said, ‘there were 53 deaths on Smart Motorways in the four years to 2019 with at least 18 blamed on the roads….. It is clear the British public has lost confidence driving on a motorway without a hard shoulder.’ He went on to say that it was ‘time to put this experiment to bed and say no more new Smart Motorways’.

It did leave me wondering at what point the former Chancellor reached this conclusion. Was it while he was still a member of the Cabinet and how many others shared his view? It also made me wonder why he finds the data for ending this type of motorway so compelling but the Transport Secretary appears not to. At any rate, I welcome his conversion however late in the day.

So, he gets my vote.

Well, he would if I had one.

Stay safe.