Ipswich lawyer hits out at wasted investments as axe looms over magistrates courts in Bury St Edmunds and Lowestoft
- Credit: Sarah Lucy brown
The threat of closure for Bury St Edmunds and Lowestoft magistrates courts as part of widespread Government cost-cutting has left many fearing for the future and fairness of local justice.
Ipswich defence solicitor Dino Barricella today gives his frank assessment of this and other cutbacks could affect any one of us.
“I wish to put a scenario to you.
John Smith, a man who has never been arrested in his life, spends 18 hours in a cell for a relatively minor offence.
The reason for the delay is that the police have not seized CCTV or taken statements - ‘Not enough officers on, you see’,
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The police have insufficient resources and the case has yet to even be assigned to an officer.
The innocent man, having spent hours in custody, is then charged with the offence. The police never did seize that CCTV or take a statement from the all-important witness who could have undermined the alleged victim’s statement.
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He can’t afford a solicitor because he is on low income.
The state won’t provide him with a solicitor because he earns that little bit too much and whilst it will affect his livelihood and his reputation, well, it’s just not so serious as to justify a solicitor, is it? Unrepresented this man is found guilty of an offence he didn’t commit.
He loses his job and, as a consequence, he can’t afford his rent and is now homeless.
Where does this man live? Say eastern or southern Europe, Africa, poorer parts of America?
This man doesn’t live in downtown Brooklyn, but downtown Bury St Edmunds.
‘This can’t be true!’ I hear you cry. ‘The British justice system is the envy of the world.’
Well, perhaps once maybe, but no longer.
No doubt you’d expect, having allegedly committed the offence in Bury St Edmunds, living in Bury St Edmunds, as does the alleged victim and all the witnesses, you would expect the matter to then be listed before Bury St Edmunds Magistrates Court.
Well, not under the new government’s proposals.
There is no money for court houses so this innocent man, on low income, has to travel to Ipswich as this will be the only magistrates court in the whole of Suffolk.
Let me make something quite clear.
Our legal system is somewhat antiquated and needs to be reformed and I am the first, unlike many in my profession, to admit it. I don’t write as some idealistic defence solicitor.
I write as a moderate who is genuinely concerned about the current state of the criminal justice system.
Not just because of cuts to the legal aid budget, which I accept directly affects my livelihood.
I am also concerned that due to cuts in spending, which means a direct reduction in police officers, a number of offences will simply not be investigated.
I even have sympathy for my opponents at the Crown Prosecution Service.
They are overworked, under-resourced, and so often fail to comply with court directions because they simply don’t have the manpower.
This means that the victims of crime will be let down as matters are simply just not prosecuted properly.
It also means suspects are on bail for many months without charge as files are not reviewed or processed.
I write this article as I wish to dispel a number of myths.
The first is that, ‘You’re all fat cat solicitors!’
A typical criminal solicitor won’t start earning until well into their mid to late 20s.
It takes six years to become a solicitor. It takes seven years to become a duty solicitor.
Leaving university, saddled with debt earning a decent, but far from high, salary. If you want to be a ‘fat cat’ you don’t go into criminal law. Those that do are dedicated and hard-working.
I started this job in 1996 - ironically the last time there was ever a wholesale increase in fees.
There was a slight increase in some legal aid rates in 2001.
However, the government reduced the fees by 8¾% in March 2014. On July 1 2015 these fees were again reduced because of the government’s austerity measures by a further 8¾%. Therefore the fees have been reduced by 17½% in just 18 months.
And this is against the background of the fees having not been significantly increased since 2001.
This means that criminal legal aid fees are less now than they were over a decade ago. Whose salary is less than a decade ago?
Further, the scope for where legal aid has been granted has now been reduced.
I am sure that there are a number of top QCs who earn considerable amounts of money.
However, they are few and far between; they are at the top of their profession and their greying hair will tell you that they got there because of years of experience.
All these QCs earning less in a year than Wayne Rooney probably earns in a week.
The average criminal defence solicitor works day and night.
Often in court or the police station during the day and then at the police station during the course of a night. Indeed, just a couple of days ago I returned home at 4am. having dealt with a matter at the police station. I was then in court for 9.30am.
We regularly do 80 to 90-hour weeks earning probably the same as a tube driver for a 36-hour week.
Do I expect sympathy? Not really, just don’t call me a fat cat.
Another urban myth is ‘It’s the same old people committing crime time and time again, well, it’s never going to happen to me, is it?’
It is often those who have never been in the criminal justice system who need a solicitor more than anyone. Again, let me put a scenario to you.
A lady who has never been in trouble before is asked by a hysterical neighbour to come back to her house.
When she does she is confronted by a body lying on the kitchen floor covered in blood.
She is picking up the knife when the police arrive. She’s arrested for murder. Far fetched? A true story.
Another scenario: A nice middle-class college boy meets girl. Both drink. They go back to her home ... You know the rest.
Charged and prosecuted for rape.
Still not convinced? You are driving a little too fast, something swerves out in front of you, you take avoiding action, hit a child. Dead. You’re charged with death by dangerous driving.
Think any of those above are undeserving of legal aid?
Another myth I wish to dispel. Many understandably might think that if someone funds their case privately and they are then acquitted that they can expect to get their costs back. Wrong.
This used to be the case, but the amount that someone can recover is now capped.
So let’s take any of those examples above. Let’s take John Smith.
He decides to borrow money from his family or gets a loan with which to pay his solicitor who is representing him. The matter goes to trial and he is found not guilty.
Having been prosecuted by the state he might realistically expect the state to reimburse his fees.
There will inevitably be a shortfall and notwithstanding the fact he was found not guilty he will be out of pocket.
Another myth is that we always drag things out to make money.
Those genuine solicitors amongst us, of which there are very many, would always do what is in the best interests of the client.
I would suggest it is more likely that someone who is represented pleads guilty than someone who is unrepresented.
Many people who are unrepresented plead not guilty because they think they have a defence. Ultimately they do not have a defence, but have very good mitigation.
If someone has a strong case they should plead not guilty and take it to trial and fight it all the way. Sometimes, however, it’s damage limitation and that can often be a prompt guilty plea.
Defence solicitors actually assist the court in giving proper advice so that people enter an appropriate plea. We therefore save time and money and therefore court resources because we avoid going to a contested hearing when there is no need.
Further, as experienced solicitors we ensure that court directions are complied with.
As unrepresented people often don’t understand what they’re doing this can cause delay with the court.
The government wants to reduce the number of firms providing legal aid work.
I, again unlike a number of my peers, accept that there are too many defence solicitors set up in organisations that are arguably too small to service the work.
However, the government’s proposal is to reduce the current 1,600 providers of criminal legal aid in the country to just 500.
This is not a reduction, but a cull.
The concern I have is that in some areas of the country, especially rural, there will just not be significant cover.
Further, this means that very many good and experienced solicitors will be lost from the profession.
Many, like me, sweated blood and tears to invest time and money in building up a firm that has been successful by virtue of the client following we have.
The firms of the future that may get a contract will, because of fee reduction, not be able to employ experienced solicitors, but will undoubtedly employ newly qualified solicitors or legal executives to carry out the work. Many may be very able, but will not have the experience.
Further, I have sympathy for them because they will be paid a very basic salary with which the only way they will be able to earn a reasonable salary -and pay back college fees - is to work significant overtime.
This means therefore that they will be at the police station day and night.
If you are constantly out of the office, at court or at the police station and working until the early hours, corners will inevitably be cut.
A quality service will not be provided and there will be miscarriages of justice.
I have no problem with the government trying to save money and streamlining systems and making efficiencies.
As someone who, with my partners, runs a business I tend to do that on a daily basis.
However, sometimes there appears to be no joined-up thinking with what the government propose.
The government want to save money, but then creates a system where greater costs are incurred.
Making savings in one government department often means there are knock-on costs to another.
We have been told locally to work electronically, but then the court doesn’t install Wi-Fi at Ipswich Magistrates Court.
Further, they then spend money installing video equipment for the Virtual Court Link at Bury St Magistrates Court and then consider shutting the court down.
In Ipswich they spent money on building additional cell space at the police station and then within 18 months decide to demolish the police station.
Millions of pounds are then spent on building a police investigation centre where those arrested are detained on the east side of Ipswich, the police officers now being based at Landmark House on the very west of the town, meaning further delay because of travel.
The government have asked solicitors firms to bid for work at Bury St Edmunds Magistrates Court.
Within weeks of the deadline passing to make a bid the government then announce they may close Bury St Edmunds Magistrates Court. Therefore, those who have bid for work at Bury St Edmunds have now bid for something that may not exist!
My partners and I at this firm, and others practising in Ipswich, have built up a large client following.
People have faith in us; they trust in us; they want us to represent them.
However, this can be taken away in a blink of an eye. Why? The new government proposals.
We must all bid for contracts notwithstanding we have built up a client base within that very same contract area. So, in the future don’t expect to be represented by someone who has completed seven years of study and has years of experience.
Now your new lawyers will be Tesco Law, Serco or Capita.
Been charged with a crime? Don’t worry, call Lawyers’R’Us at a call centre in Croydon.
Press 1 for guilty and 2 for not guilty.”
If you agree, sign our Justice for Suffolk petition below.