Exhibits A-D : four reasons why the legal aid reforms need to be stopped

The legal aid reforms will lead to innocent people being jailed. A barrister's wife explains why.

My blog, A Barrister’s Wife, started because I wanted to contribute to the Save UK Justice campaign against the changes to the criminal justice system outlined in the consultation paper Transforming Legal Aid: Delivering a more credible and efficient system. Some of the key changes are as follows:

  • Removal of the defendant’s right to choose a lawyer
  • Legal aid lawyers to be paid the same whether a defendant pleads guilty or goes to trial
  • Reduction of the income threshold at which defendants will be eligible for legal aid
  • Reduction of the number of legal aid providers from 1600 to 400
  • Competitive tendering for legal aid contracts

As things stand, these changes will be brought in under secondary legislation, without any debate in parliament. One of Save UK Justice’s aims is to get over 100 000 signatures on the Save UK Justice e-petition, so that these proposals might be debated in parliament.

When the campaign first started a few weeks ago I noticed that most of the conversation about the proposals was between lawyers. There was very little interest or input from non-legal people or the mainstream media. There seemed to be two reasons for this:

  • the public were unaware of the proposals and didn’t understand what they would mean in practice and in any case
  • the public wouldn’t care, because the only people perceived to be affected were lawyers and criminals

As the wife of a criminal barrister I have more insight into the workings of the justice system than most non-legal people. I decided to write a blog to try and debunk the myths that are ingrained in the public perception and to explain why these proposals should be of interest to everyone.

Initial posts covered the myth of the fat cat lawyer and the myth of the scumbag criminals. I then began looking in more detail at four of my husband’s cases. This “exhibits series” provides real life examples of how normal, law abiding, people can end up on the wrong side of the law. Each post concludes by explaining why the story matters and how each defendant might have fared under the MOJ’s proposals.

The Exhibits are:

Exhibit A – the “child pornographer”

Exhibit B – the “murderer”

Exhibit C – the “paedophile”

Exhibit D – the “fraudster”

There will be a Justice for Sale rally and demonstration in London on Wednesday 22 May, more information here.

Barrister's Wife is a barrister's wife. She writes a pseudonymous blog which offers a behind closed doors view of the justice system.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.