Friday, 3 August 2012

The Briefs

I found this first episode of a two-parter 'The Briefs' about the largest criminal law practice in Britain absolutely fascinating on a number of levels. It reminded me just how far we've come since the days when solicitors were forbidden from advertising at all, and here we are with 'Tuckers' based in Manchester effectively getting two hours free prime time tv advertising courtesy of ITV1.  

The clients were recognisably difficult, uncooperative, cagey and often unable to act either in their own best interest or accept sound advice. But I have to say that as a small town probation officer, the lawyers were quite alien with way too much sun tan and gold visible, and often no tie! But then this practice turns over £10million a year with more than half coming from the public purse via Legal Aid. And they are based in a big city and experience has taught me that there is a vast difference between small town and big city solicitor. I found it hard deciding who was legally qualified in this huge practice and what exactly was the role of that gobby woman impressing upon the police station lawyers the need to 'get more customers'? 

I've always felt that the court process is basically a game by which the professional middle class earn very decent incomes at the expense both of the state and the under class and this programme served to confirm that belief in spades. Many a time I have pondered whilst sat observing in court that the whole thing is class-oriented, but not-so-subtle changes have been at work as hinted at here. 

Some viewers might have been puzzled by solicitors suddenly appearing robed-up and on the steps of the Crown Court. Surely the solicitor 'briefs' the barrister when a case goes 'upstairs'? Well not since the profession decided to create Solicitor Advocates who have right of audience in the higher courts. Initially you could tell the difference because they couldn't wear wigs, but that changed in 2008. In theory the client should get a better service from someone that knows the case inside out, in contrast to scenes I've witnessed when a barrister interviews the client for the first time barely minutes before the hearing. I suspect the main motivation however is to keep more of the fee within a legal practice and it shouldn't be surprising that the junior Bar are complaining about loss of trade, and possibly a little 'dumbing' down'? See what you think from these handy idiot guides and the blurring of roles continues as this piece in the Telegraph highlights. 

This process has been going on for a long time in the magistrates court of course. I well remember when the police finally gave up the role of Prosecuting Authority in the lower courts and the Crown Prosecution Service was created, initially barristers were provided, but were later replaced with unqualified Associate Prosecutors. For a long time Judges refused to accept committals unless dealt with by a legally-qualified prosecutor, but they eventually caved in and everything is now dealt with by AP's. There is a move to replace qualified court clerks or Legal Advisers as they are now known and qualified probation officers have already disappeared from court completely. As this article from the Law Society Gazette from 2010 makes clear, we could arrive at a situation when unrepresented clients will be going to prison without a single legally-qualified person present in court.

In addition to my thoughts straying over all this during the programme, I couldn't help reflecting on whether I felt 'justice' had been achieved in the cases highlighted? The old saying 'justice delayed is justice denied' has been taken to a whole new level with the government's latest instruction contained in the 'Stop Delaying Justice' initiative. In the film, CPS failed to get their case together for a trial, the key witness wasn't warned to appear and therefore charges were dropped for lack of evidence. 'Justice' certainly speeded up, but delivered? Smiles all round on camera as the defence win this round in the game we call the Criminal justice System.                   

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