Humberside criminal justice system on verge of collapse, Channel 4 News report

There has been a rise in court cases without legal representation due to cuts to legal aid, according to a Channel 4 News report tonight in what experts see as the criminal justice system “on the verge of collapse.”

The report isn’t available on the site just yet but it appears that the channel has seen exclusive documents detailing a lack of legal representation in the Humberside region which experts say acts as a blueprint for the rest of the country.


Home Affairs correspondent Simon Israel draws on one case of a octogenarian deaf man charged with attempted murder whose case continues to be delayed because he has no legal representation.  The man, who has apparently had some 19 hearings so far, is just one example of mounting costs due to delays in the justice system, raising questions among experts as to how much the cuts to legal aid will really save.

Last week, Family Law Week published a piece online about the rise in litigants in person, citing judges’ concerns that legal representatives were “a rarity” in private law children cases.

Tony Roe, principal of Tony Roe Solicitors, solicitor & family law arbitrator, told the website:

“This evidence from judges shows a large increase in the number of cases where one or both parties do not have legal representation, especially private law family litigation. This contradicts Ministry of Justice claims that the latest figures demonstrate family court performance is being maintained.

“The Judiciary’s perception is that cases which might have settled are now often fully contested by litigants in person, requiring significantly more judicial involvement, causing delays. Increased delay in the family courts will inevitably lead to practitioners advising their clients to opt for family arbitration to achieve a speedier resolution, not to mention a confidential and flexible one.”



Theft and sex: a note on wigs

“There is something perverse about the fact that one of the poorest paid sections of the legal profession has the most expensive uniform”

So for most of our readers, the lawyer’s wig is an everyday, familiar item.  Possibly one of those irritating things you might have left at home when you’re running ten minutes late for a court appearance.  For the general public however, the perruque is a bit of a mystery.  Why on earth do lawyers wear wigs? (answer: they’ve been wearing them since the 17th century purely due to fashion: the reign of Charles II made wigs essential wear for polite society). What are they made of? (horsehair).  How much do they cost?

William_Ballantine_Vanity_Fair_5_March_1870_(crop).jpg Credit: Wikimedia Commons licence

William Ballantine Vanity Fair, Credit: Wikimedia Commons licence

Ah. Well, this is interesting. According to a trainee barrister source of mine, there are only about three major suppliers of wigs: Ede and Ravenscourt, Chancery Wigs and Stanley Ley.

For a barrister’s wig (the wigs for judges are about triple the cost), check out the following prices:

Ede and Ravenscourt: £560

Stanley Ley: £425

Chancery Wigs: £329

That’s an average of £438. Added to that, our trainee reminds us, is the cost of a gown (about £150), endless shirts (about £30 each), as well as all the different types of collars (roughly £15 each).

If we take that figure and put it in the context of student debt (let’s say 20k) and then consider how much a legal aid trainee is expected to make after tax and expenses (approx. 12,000 a year) – well, that is quite a sum.

“When you’ve been called to the Bar, you’ve basically got to have an extra grand to get the uniform. It’s insane, especially for legal aid lawyers.”

He says that there is actually a lot of politics when it comes to choosing your wig:

“Ede and Ravenscourt wigs look the best, but they’re really expensive. Chancery Wigs are the cheapest but they’re actually made in Australia. This is a problem because there are lots of people in the legal profession who will look down on your wig if you’ve got it ordered and shipped over from abroad. It’s a total snobbery thing.”

Chambers won’t have a stock of wigs in the back, says our trainee.

“It’s designed to be yours: it moulds to your head shape over the years, it’s yours to have and there is something special in that. But it is insanely expensive, it doesn’t really make sense.

“There is also prejudice in that some people should wear 3 piece suits, which just adds to the cost.

“I’ve only worn my wig once in the crown court. You don’t really need them in your early days but you have to buy them. In magistrates court I just wear suits.

“There is something perverse about the fact that one of the poorest paid sections of the legal profession has the most expensive uniform.

“There are lots of people who think it’s terribly important to have wigs. It’s about having a uniform for the court: court is a form of theatre, you don’t want it to be personal. You’re a person playing a role in a theatre rather than doing something to a defendant personally. There’s also the suggestion that it makes you less identifiable outside the court – you’re much more likely to have a client smack you in the face in the magistrates court [without your wig] than you are in the crown court.”

For him, the problem of affording wigs has its similarities with the issues of legal aid.

“It all goes along with this idea at the Bar that everyone is a gentleman and gentlemen don’t worry about money because gentlemen have other incomes and so no real gentleman would be particularly concerned about spending a thousand pounds on a wig before their first month’s wage. I think that’s the problem with all of it. The way that barristers bill their clients, with legal aid stuff it can take up to three or four months to get paid, that’s quite regular, and again it’s the same thing, people don’t kick up a fuss because “gentlemen” don’t have to worry about money. People are starting to complain more about not getting paid properly, but essentially this all stems from that kind of culture.

“I’ve not yet been paid for anything I’ve done and I did my first bit of paid work at the beginning of April.”

But isn’t the cost of buying the uniform justified by the fact that it’s one of those once in a lifetime (or career) investments? I ask.

Yes and no, says our trainee.

“Many trainee lawyers won’t go into crown court that often so you feel like you are spending a huge amount of money on something quite disproportionate. But then again, it’s seen as a really important part of the justice system – I think it’s silly but for many people it’s really a mark of the system and seen as special.  We don’t christen them though, like everyone thinks.”

What do you mean, “christen them”? I ask.

“Well, sexually. People say that lawyers christen their wigs when they buy them for the first time. But I don’t think it’s true.”

Going back to the notion of investment and how much he’s had to cough up for the wig, I ask him if he puts it on a stand in his bedroom at night to make sure nothing will happen to it.

“No, I keep mine in a tupperware box.  But a lot of people will keep theirs in an expensive tin with their initials on.”

The biggest problem with the wigs – as well as the expensive legal books that you need – is theft in the courts, he tells me.

THEFT in the courts? You must be kidding, I say.  Theft among lawyers?

“Yes, it’s a huge problem.  You spend all this money on the wig and the books and when it gets stolen, obviously you have to buy it all again.  My book costs about 200 quid. The crown court one is 400-500 quid. You have to replace it each year for the new edition.

“It’s not that people are too poor to buy their own, but rather that people are broke and would rather nick it than spend the money.”


Interesting food for thought – what do you think?

A day in the life of: a criminal solicitor

Matthew Swash is a criminal solicitor with OBW Perera. This article forms part of our series “A Day in the Life Of”.  If you would like to share your experiences, please get in touch via email or via Twitter @legal_aid_watch


Matthew Swash

Matthew Swash, criminal solicitor

“It is 6.00 am and my two year old is shouting to open his gate so he can get up.
Seven year old still fast asleep.

Go downstairs, iron my shirt for work and my seven year old’s uniform for school.
Put the kettle on for a strong coffee.

I got in this morning at 3.00am having been to a police station 18 miles
from my home, representing a female for criminal damage to a camera.  Continue reading

Background: Legal Aid- where does the money go?

In the year 2012-13, the government spent £1.9billion on legal assistance. The government has stated that this contributes to the UK having one of the most expensive legal systems in the world.

When we think of justice, it may conjure images of burglars or murderers in the dock. However, the legal systems works to resolve a wide range of civil and legal disputes

According to Ministry of Justice figures, there were 2.2 million cases of legal aid assistance in 2012/13. Over 1,358,000 of those were criminal cases, costing roughly £1billion in legal aid. The other 925,000 cases were civil disputes which used around £900million in funding.

Number of cases receiving legal aid in the criminal and civil justice systems over the past five years.

Number of cases receiving legal aid in the criminal and civil justice systems over the past five years.

Continue reading

Sundeep Bhatia: legal aid changes could set back ethnic minority solicitors for a generation

As former Chairman of the Society of Asian Lawyers Sundeep Bhatia leaves its committee, he highlights the grave new threat to equality in the profession.

Sundeep Bhatia, solicitor & former Chairman of the Society of Asian Lawyers

Sundeep Bhatia  fears BAME law firms are under threat. Photo: Sundeep Bhatia

Law firms with ethnic minority owners provide a valuable service to local communities, and help to cultivate diversity within the legal profession. For me it was a small Asian firm, Gupta and Partners in Wealdstone, Harrow, which gave me my big break when I started out as a solicitor.

I ran my own criminal defence firm from 1999 to 2006, and in turn gave opportunities to the next generation of BAME criminal defence lawyers. Most of those who applied were from BAME backgrounds; Indian, Pakistani, Middle Eastern and Afro-Caribbean solicitors all worked at my firm. This is one of the reasons why I am passionate about the continued existence of such firms, but under the legal aid reforms it is likely some will now wither on the vine. Continue reading

The Wall Street Journal and Legal Aid Agency statistics

Legal Aid Watch welcomes this contribution from Tim Thomas, a direct access barrier specialising in Commercial Criminal Fraud at 1 Pump Court.

You can read Tim’s article “How the Government should respond to the Operation Cotton judgment – from a barrister who returned one of the briefs” here.

Image courtesy of Tim Thomas

Image courtesy of Tim Thomas

The Wall Street Journal and Legal Aid Agency statistics

Gratifying as it was that the Wall Street Journal chose to publish an article about the Operation Cotton ruling yesterday there are a number of statements in it that were incorrect.

Firstly to describe VHCCs [Very High Cost Cases] as consuming a ‘large chunk of the MOJ’s’ annual £2bn Legal Aid Budget’ is nonsense. If one examines the Legal Aid Agency statistics for 2012/2013 – the most up to date there are – figures on page nine show that VHCCs cost £67.6m in 2012-13, having fallen 26% from the year before.

Even at the height of 2007/8 they were only costing £124m and that was largely down to the fact that many more cases were contracted (until 2011/12 cases had to have a minimum of a 40 day trial estimate, after that it was 60 days – thus less cases are now being contracted – which explains the fall in cost).

The MoJ’s suggestion that the 30% cut will save tens of millions of £s is patently rubbish. The 30% cut on £67.6m saves them £19m. The Government found £200m for pot hole repair in the March 2014 budget but is prepared to undermine the prosecution of Serious Fraud cases;  letting down alleged victims and defendants, as well damaging the limited credibility of the FCA; for a saving of £19m….