20/05/2013 11:11 BST | Updated 20/07/2013 06:12 BST

It Could be You


You have been mistakenly identified from CCTV footage; a student has falsely accused you of molesting her; you have been charged with assault while defending yourself from a drunk; the other driver in a motor accident maliciously reports you to the police; your child has been charged with a public order offence at a demonstration. You need a lawyer to advise you, but can't afford one.

Legal Aid enables you to go to a solicitor with a good reputation. You can choose. There's plenty of information out there to inform your choice, or some one may give a recommendation. You want the best, of course, and if you shop around you'll find it. You may have to contribute towards the fees, unless you are on benefits. Choice and competition, those beacons of free enterprise, work in your favour. Most criminal lawyers do the job as a vocation, because they believe in it, not to become millionaires. They aspire to do the best they can for their clients. Some are better than others, but that's life.

The government want to change all that. Instead of choice, you will be assigned the solicitor who has won the contract for criminal legal aid in your area. You can't go out of it. That solicitor will have won by putting in the lowest bid for the contract, not by being the best at the job. They will get all the work in the area. If it's a big city, more than one firm may cover the same area, but there still won't be a choice. Clients will be assigned by letter of the alphabet, or the day of the week on which they are arrested. No choice, no competition. The MoJ Consultation Paper sets its sights no higher than 'adequate representation'.

The solicitor will be on fixed fee per case, no matter how difficult the case is. They will have to achieve a massive turnover to break even, on the rates being proposed. They will be under huge pressure to tell you to plead guilty, because preparing a trial will destroy their profit. They won't be able to pay senior, experienced staff. You will get a pig in a poke.

This is what is coming if the Ministry of Justice gets its way. It can do all this (and more) without troubling Parliament because these changes don't need to be in primary legislation. Mr Grayling can abolish legal aid as we know it with a stroke of his pen.

The MoJ has picked a random figure of £220 million to cut from the Legal Aid budget by 2017. With crime falling and legal already cut to the bone in the Legal Aid Sentencing & Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, the costs are falling sharply anyway. They want more, regardless of the damage.

It's not about murderers, paedophiles, rapists, and fat-cat lawyers. It's about any of us who may get into trouble. If you are ill, do you want the NHS to provide 'adequate' treatment, or would you prefer it to be 'excellent' or the envy of the world as politicians love to claim? Why should it be different when the trouble is legal, not medical?