What’s justice got to do with it?

Old BaileyOn Saturday night we went out for dinner with a couple of friends. There we were, in the gorgeous surroundings of the Delaunay restaurant in central London, having a wonderful dinner, discussing our concerns for the future of legal aid. We talked about our Lord Chancellor, Chris Grayling, a former TV executive and decidedly not a lawyer, and just what his department has done to legal aid.

My husband is now semi-retired, a consultant in his firm and our friend, who was once a legal aid lawyer, is also now semi-retired. They both hold judicial office on a part time basis and both are now free of the constant responsibilities, challenges and stress of running a law firm, after years as senior partners in legal aid practices.

No longer do they have to wake up in the morning to check the new work coming into the office, be told the bank position that day and worry about ensuring a decent cash flow. They no longer have to deal with all the regulatory requirements that have steadily become more onerous as the years have gone by, deal with the increasing cost of indemnity insurance, practising certificates, suppliers, clients being slow to pay their bills –  that whole host of problems that can crop up any day in any law firm and frequently do. After 40-odd years of working at the coal face, long days and frequently long nights, they can both relax and enjoy their dinners. I can say they both look far, far better for it.

Still thinking about our dinner table discussion, I went for a run yesterday through St James’s Park and I ended up quite by accident, running past a building with a huge sign outside. It is called the ‘Ministry of Justice’.

As I looked up at this vast building, I started to laugh. How ironic. The Ministry of Justice? As I ran past it, I asked myself , what does ‘justice’ still have to do with law? It is all about money now. Justice doesn’t come into it.

A confession, one which I have made before. In 1990, to the amazement of my firm, I decided to stop doing legal aid. In short, I loved the work but loathed the red tape: for example the constraints on me just to get a certificate amended so I could provide a service at some future point in time, the same service I could provide immediately for  a privately paying client. I tired of the form-filling, of chasing up a faceless bureaucrat to get an extension or query a certificate or appeal a ridiculous refusal, then finally going through a drawn-out payment process to eventually retrieve a sliver of what my private clients paid me. In the end I decided enough was enough.

Everyone else thought I was mad. They told me the firm never manage without legal aid, that it was safe, steady and secure – but of course, we’ve all since discovered just how secure legal aid really was. I didn’t need to come back to it and thank goodness for that. I missed the work but, from a business perspective, I now dread to think what would have happened to my firm had I continued.

Other legal aid lawyers, however, kept on going. They stuck to the system that drove me bonkers. They kept doing the work that I did for far more remuneration than them. Day in, day out, they steadfastly delivered a service that was being whittled further and further down. And now here we all are in 2013, that landmark year when legal aid for private family clients has been completely abolished, even for the poorest among us.

When I try to imagine  what that means, my mind goes blank with shock. Family law isn’t just about issuing a relatively straightforward divorce petition and then going online to read the DWP’s latest bland app (assuming you know what an app actually is). It isn’t about going into a supermarket and ordering a tightly-budgeted appointment while buying the weekly shop.

It is about being advised and being represented when making applications to the court for ancillary relief. It is about someone who cares telling you the procedure and the law, making you feel safe. Its about having the best chance to get the right result And that is of course just the tip of the iceberg in divorce. How about TOLATA? Surrogacy? Or an Inheritance Act application? How about dealing with international child abduction? Making a Schedule 1 Children Act application?

Yes, there is the argument that only the well-off would need to make these types of application – but it isn’t just about the wealthy, who usually (but not always) have the means to push such applications. It’s about the woman with no income of her own with a family, or someone hard done by in a will. Its about someone who has an interest in a property and needs to fight to get it, with no means to do so. It’s about someone who doesn’t want to sell her home and needs the help of a lawyer so she can stay in that home with her children rather than live in a council house. Legal aid used to be able to help such people.

Justice for everyone.

The family law profession eventually woke up to the implications of abolishing legal aid, but did so far too late to stop the process. The Law Society tried, but it was toothless, any real power having long ago withered away. The judiciary uttered barely a squeak and told us to grin and bear it, not to complain about what we cannot change. Why? Why should we grin and bear it? Just look at what we have now. A family law justice system that is rotten because it serves only those who can afford to litigate, such as the Prests and the oligarchs whom Grayling is courting with open arms to our wonderful, shiny new mercantile courts. Come share in our legal system and bring your money with you – and as we all know, it doesn’t matter where it comes from.

Yes, we discussed our professional careers on Saturday over dinner. We were able to relax, we who have escaped legal aid and Chris Grayling and his Ministry of “Justice”.

Photo of Lady Justice over the Old Bailey by Joe Dunckley via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence

Marilyn Stowe

The senior partner at Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known divorce lawyers with clients throughout the country, in Europe, the Far East and the USA.

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12 comments

Steve - June 19, 2013 at 8:22pm

It is about being advised and being represented when making applications to the court for ancillary relief. It is about someone who cares telling you the procedure and the law, making you feel safe. Its about having the best chance to get the right result And that is of course just the tip of the iceberg in divorce. How about TOLATA? Surrogacy? Or an Inheritance Act application? How about dealing with international child abduction? Making a Schedule 1 Children Act application?

Utter nonsense, family law is about how lawyers/solicitors “ripping off” individuals at their most vulnerable time. Lets cloud their judgement with meaningless and often non-enforceable tripe.

Sorry but it has to be said

Marilyn Stowe - June 19, 2013 at 8:49pm

Dear Steve
Solicitors train for 6 years to learn the law and then spend a lifetime learning how to apply it. There is no way an unrepresented litigant can hope to match the skill and expertise of a lawyer whether in the preparation of the case or at any of the necessary hearings. Whether in litigating or settling. Sorry but its a fact.
You also missed my point which is that those who can afford to pay for their lawyers are fine. Those who can’t are not. That’s a huge problem with the Family Justice system since April 2013.
Regards
Marilyn

Steve - June 21, 2013 at 6:50am

Unfortunately I disgaree. In a number of cases an unrepresented sensible litigant will be more than a match for a high street lawyer and be far far far cheaper. We should be asking why legal aid has gone……..inflated and exaggerated solicitor costs on legal aid which was costing so much. At £30 a letter and hours of supposed perusal and consideration……its a rip off and everybody knows it!

michelle jatta - June 21, 2013 at 2:47pm

i recently used the legal aid for child abduction wrongful retention and i am currently using it as ex disputing custody i was given, under the new laws i would not be able to get this help.

i would be forced to leave my kids in the situation they are in.

i have also sat and watched how the legal aid has been used wrongly and agree some changes need to be made, i have seen how some people have had it stopped and go to a different lawyer and then get awarded it.

i know there are flaws but i know a lot of lawyers and all of them are reasonable and i have seen where people think they exgairate the costs but they do not.

i have sat in my current barristers room and seen the effort and the work she does, she does legal aid work and she probably wont get paid for this work till at least another 18 months.

doing legal aid work is dedication from what i have seen and that is why a lot of decent solicitors drop legal aid cases as it has too much red tape, i my self had a certificate revoked as they said i never sent the paperwork, but i did and it was re instated .

it is like saying a nurse is the same as a doctor and could do the same work, both equally hard but certain things a nurse could not do.

michelle jatta - June 21, 2013 at 2:48pm

plus when you go see a sols and you pay, they lay down the costs. there are a lot of ranges in prices and you pay for what you get in my experience .

how can you complain about charges when they expalin charges in advance, well all my previous cases they have

Marilyn Stowe - June 21, 2013 at 3:00pm

Dear Michelle
Thanks very much for your comments. I am grateful for what you have taken the time to write. Solicitors get a lot of stick which isn’t fair or right but they have to accept it no matter what. So when someone does take the time to write as you have, its really appreciated.
Best wishes
Marilyn

JamesB - June 21, 2013 at 4:16pm

It can be a bit like defence procurement with the quotes though imho. They tend to run over budget and the quotes sent in my experience they seem to be able to make the cases last just until you run out of money, or longer.

Steve - June 21, 2013 at 6:23pm

How many professions charge you per hour but in actually charge by converting 6 minute units which are then converted back to hours for invoicing???? Its perfectly feasible that in hour, a solicitor may only work for 35 minutes per hour. A 40% differential.

u6c00 - June 22, 2013 at 8:40am

I myself use legal aid as my certificate was live before the cut-off and I would like to add my thoughts.

I think I would have been capable of representing myself, in fact I did for 3 months. Without a barrister at some hearings I would not have been able to secure two of the orders that I did. I therefore have high regard for legal aid.

Legal aid needed reforming, mainly in the sense that the whole family justice system needs reforming.

As it was the lowest income party was able to bully and drag out proceedings against a higher income party because they were comfortable in the knowledge that they weren’t paying a penny, and a number of legal aid solicitors were likely complicit in this. Parties paying for their own representation were forced to give up or be strong-armed into something that was unreasonable for the sake of saving money, something which cannot be right.

On the other hand, the new system allows the wealthier party to behave in the same way. This is a step sideways to my mind. Someone is still getting bullied, we’ve just changed the victim.

I believe that the current legal aid rate is £50/hour, or it was last time I was sent a letter with costs on it. Some will think that’s too high, you may be right. Just putting a number to it for an informed discussion.

As for charging in 6 minute blocks, I think that’s a sensible way of doing it. There is no way I could write a 2 page letter in 12 minutes, but this is what they’re allowed to charge. I would sooner they charge in 6 minute blocks than round up to the full hour.

The forthcoming changes to criminal legal aid are potentially devastating, and I would urge anyone who has a concept of justice to read about them and to really examine whether or not they believe that they will lead to more justice or less.

Steve - June 22, 2013 at 2:06pm

How about charging for the work you do??? 40% differential is a lot.

JamesB - June 22, 2013 at 8:07pm

If I hadn’t had legal aid free at the police station I probably would have got a criminal record from one of my exes complaints.

I think that is unaffected. Someone correct me if I am wrong? That is still the case, legal aid is free when you are at a police station being questioned under caution. If it were not I would complain and be sad about that.

JamesB - June 22, 2013 at 10:19pm

That was legal aid for criminal law, I don’t know anything about legal aid for civil law.

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