Tuesday, 14 May 2013

What price justice, Mr Grayling?

One day very soon we will see Chris Grayling's dystopia for legal professions come into being.

We've already seen massive Legal Aid cuts. Lost amongst the Daily Mail crowd-pleasing headlines, such as cuts to prisoners' Legal Aid and cuts to Legal Aid available to immigrants, has been the real substance of the cuts: cuts to assistance in housing disputes, to family and divorce aid, to welfare appeal representation, to criminal injuries compensation assistance, to representation at employment tribunals, to help with education problems... Unless your case falls into very limited loopholes, you won't be able to get public funding to help you get a solicitor.

Then there's the cuts to Citizens Advice Bureaux. Many Bureaux across the country have been forced to shut their doors or limit their opening hours as public funding has been slashed. In times of economic hardship, it's been left to communities to fund those centres which help those most desperately in need of free legal assistance.

I hope you've noticed who those cuts really hit. Those in the most need. Those poor and destitute who need financial assistance to help them pursue justice.

If you're disabled and want to appeal against the decision to take away Disability Support Allowance, then tough. It doesn't matter that you might not be able to afford to effectively feed and clothe your family and heat your home; you're going to have to fund your case yourself, or represent yourself in the treacherous labyrinths of welfare law.

Or you've lost your job and want to claim unfair dismissal. You can't have Legal Aid. No matter that you've lost your income and it might not be your fault. Once again, you fund that case yourself or you represent yourself. If the choice is between justice and feeding your family, there's only one choice, and it's not the one that might see you get reinstated.

Even worse: your family is being ripped apart after your partner suddenly ran away with someone else. You want a divorce, but don't have any money after your firm went out of business after you'd worked there for only eighteen months. Again, you fund that divorce yourself. No Legal Aid is available.

Access to justice is something that Legal Aid was meant to facilitate. Its withdrawal leaves potentially millions with no option of going to court or arbitration for redress. It makes legal professionals inaccessible.

You've probably noticed by now that I've yet to talk about criminal Legal Aid. This is in no small part because publicly-funded criminal work is undergoing the most radical transformation of all. Unlike the areas of publicly-funded civil work, I'm an outsider looking in on the criminal 'reforms'. But I watch on with increasing horror as Chris Grayling's proposals look set to destroy the finest criminal justice system in the world.

Firstly, there's the proposals to contract criminal work out to a limited number of firms across the country. Firms will bid to secure Legal Aid contracts. Only 400 out of 1,600 firms will survive this process - possibly fewer. They who can do the work at the lowest cost will inevitably stand the best chance of securing the contracts. However it most certainly isn't the case that those low-cost lawyers will be the best options. It'll lead to corner-cutting as firms try to take on large workloads and keep costs low at the same time in an attempt to generate the biggest profits. The people who will miss out will be the clients.

Then there are the proposals with regards to advocates. You want the barrister of your choice to represent you at court? Tough. You'll be assigned someone who is assessed under the QASA scheme as being appropriate to the level of case you're assessed as having. Your choice of advocate will be taken away. I don't know about you, but if I was in trouble I'd want to be able to choose who represented me. I'd want to be able to talk to my solicitors about who would be instructed. And I'd want to be able to instruct someone else if I felt my barrister wasn't up to the task, or if I wasn't getting the advice I felt I needed.

Which brings me on to another issue: the tapering of barristers' fees. Somehow Grayling has got it into his head that advocates spin out proceedings, so he's suggested tapering fees. Under the proposal, a led junior in a complex fraud case would, at the end of a six-week trial, be earning £2.60 a day. What price justice? Barristers are human beings, at the end of the day. They share the same concerns with regards to finance as most people. If they know they're going to be paid a pittance for several weeks of work, they'll be worrying about how to make ends meet. What's their advice likely to be with regards to your plea, with that in mind? Forget the strength of the evidence. Forget your own protestations of innocence. Even forget the Bar Code of Conduct. Remember that they'll be getting paid £2.60 a day by the end of your trial, which is listed for six weeks. Their advice to you will be to plead guilty.

Is it the barrister's fault that they don't want to work for peanuts? No. And why should they? Their calling - a calling I wish to share - still needs to be founded on solid economic grounds. The Code of Conduct may force them to act fearlessly to promote your best interests, but how much weight does that hold when they're trying to hold a family together on less than £10,000 a year, working long hours every day?

This hasn't been reasoned discourse about the pros and cons of the Grayling proposals which will most likely become reality by 2015 (and which already are reality in relation to the civil matters). It's been my own view. I see injustice and inequality reigning in the legal system for decades if Grayling's reforms come to pass. I see good men and women walking away from the law because they simply cannot afford to continue to promote their clients' best interests, with the running of proceedings left to tinpot advocates from companies like Eddie Stobart. Above all, I see an incompetent arrogant man pushing through his personal crusade at whatever cost necessary, and if that happens to be to the detriment of what could be millions, then so be it.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Staying up, staying up, staying up!

Anyone who bumps into me in the street this week might have to look twice. I may look hangdog. My face may be lined, hair greying and receded. There may be a look of haunted oblivion in my eyes. All because yesterday afternoon I aged 10 years as Huddersfield Town put me and 22,000 others through the wringer.

Surely we couldn't get relegated. We had three points more than our opponents Barnsley, who occupied the final place in the relegation zone. There were three other teams between us and them. All had to better our result - or even win, in two cases, just to get level with us. A year on from a Wembley promotion, all anyone expected was survival. Hence a massive crowd, the second largest League crowd in the stadium's history.

The atmosphere was almost play-off like. Ten thousand clappers had been handed out. The roar as the teams emerged was deafening. Belief flooded the stadium and stayed there for about five minutes, before Barnsley started to dictate play. Town were a Chris O'Grady goal down before too long, having not gotten into the game at all. Then bombshells started to arrive. Peterborough led at Palace, taking them above us. Worse, Sheffield Wednesday also led, and Millwall were drawing. As things stood at half-time, we were in the drop zone with the preposterous total of 57 points.

News filtered through the stands at the interval that Crystal Palace had converted a stoppage-time penalty against Peterborough. Suddenly we were out of the bottom three. And not long after the restart we were doing what we needed to do - Jermaine Beckford latched on to Danny Ward's through ball and lifted it over the Barnsley keeper to equalise. Cue pandemonium. Barnsley's fans were silenced.

Sheffield Wednesday already had their game against horribly out of form Middlesbrough sewn up. Attention shifted from game to game. Peterborough took the lead again, meaning that Barnsley had to score to put us in the bottom three... which they duly did through Jason Scotland. Heads went in hands in sheer despair. It couldn't happen to us again, could it? No side had ever been relegated with more than 52 points, we surely couldn't go down with 57?

The introduction of Lee Novak with nine minutes to go brought instant rewards as he teed James Vaughan up for a second equaliser, dumping Barnsley back in the bottom 3 with 55 points. We had 58; all we needed to do was hang on, something easier said than done with Barnsley throwing the kitchen sink at our defence in their desperation.

Suddenly Crystal Palace were level. There were seven minutes to go at Selhurst Park and veteran striker Kevin Phillips had toe-poked the Eagles ahead. News rippled around the McAlpine. Some measure of relaxation started to go around the ground; even a tentative rendition of, 'We are staying up!' went around the home ends. Still, all it needed to doom us was another Peterborough goal and for Barnsley to snatch a winner.

Two minutes later, news broke of Derby taking the lead against Millwall. Suddenly three goals needed to go in in five minutes to relegate us, one of which had to be against us. But Barnsley still needed a goal - they had to better Peterborough's result, going into the game with the same points but a worse goal difference. They continued to press. Fingernails took a hammering as crosses whipped into the box and Town failed to clear their lines, all too aware that a goal against could be disastrous.

Somehow Town broke out and managed to force a Barnsley dead ball. And that was when the man who sits in the row below turned around and said, "Crystal Palace are winning."

Word passed through the stadium like wildfire. Pockets of celebration broke out in the Barnsley end. As things stood, they were safe and Peterborough were down. We were entering five minutes of injury time. All that needed to happen was for results to stay as they were. For three more fraught, tense minutes Town and Barnsley went at it, hammer and tongs. Both sides pressed for a winner for those few moments, until the news of the score in London finally made its way to the Barnsley bench.

Barnsley had a goal kick. Luke Steele, the goalkeeper, rushed to get it taken, only for the entire bench to erupt and order him to slow it down. They'd done enough, as it was. There was no need to rush. After a moment, the goal kick was taken, and Peter Clarke, the Town skipper, cleared it back to Steele. Under no pressure, he dribbled around his area for just over a minute. 22,000 fans, knowing what was happening, spontaneously burst out into a unified chant of 'Yorkshire! Yorkshire! Yorkshire!' Adam Clayton, the Town midfielder, danced over to the Kilner Bank and started his celebrations a minute early. Jack Hunt, exhausted after a pulsating Yorkshire derby, sat down near the halfway line, waiting for the whistle. The whistle went, and Town had secured the point needed to guarantee Championship football.

A few moments later confirmation of the final score at Selhurst Park came through: Crystal Palace 3-2 Peterborough United. Barnsley were also safe. Results had contrived to send the Posh down.

The scenes post-match were incredible. Town fans had invaded the pitch on the final whistle, and were celebrating. It took a moment for the full Barnsley support to join in, waiting for the moment when Peterborough's defeat was confirmed. The whole stadium was unified in its joy. Every chant was echoed by the supporters of the other side, and time after time it came back to the same chant of  'Yorkshire!'

Both managers addressed the stadium and were greeted by rapturous applause from all four sides of the ground. There was the feeling of a special bond between the two clubs, a mutual respect almost unheard of in football. As Town fans applauded Barnsley's celebrations, so did Barnsley's fans stay to applaud the Town team on its lap of honour.

In almost 20 years of watching football - and almost 600 games - I've never seen anything like it. The atmosphere was something else to start with. By the end it had transcended football and become a statement of solidarity in celebration. It was wonderful to behold and be a part of.