The Ministry of Justice consultation on plans to cut the cost of criminal legal aid ends on June 4th. Some may believe that it is not really a consultation at all, but a sham in which the responses will be swiftly binned because its outcome has already been decided. Their fears were heightened yesterday when the Justice Minister, Chris Grayling, declared that “unless someone’s got a stunning alternative it’s going ahead in some form.”
The centrepiece of the MoJ proposals – which Grayling admits pre-date his appointment as Justice Secretary – involves an extraordinarily far reaching scheme to close down three-quarters of the criminal solicitors firms in the country replacing them with “providers” who must compete on price to provide legal representation to all criminal suspects. Unless they can pay privately, those arrested will have no choice about their solicitor: they will have to accept whoever the “provider” allocates to them for however long their case lasts. As Grayling observes, the idea has been floating around in the Ministry of Justice for years. Until his appointment , though, no minister has been stupid enough to try to implement it.
It is not enough to point out as practically all commentators have, that the probable result of the madcap scheme will be the destruction of the criminal solicitors’ and barristers’ professions as we know them. And it probably just encourages the Mr Grayling to observe, as Adam Wagner has in his influential UK Human Rights Blog, that the removal all choice of solicitor from clients may well be unlawful under the European Convention on Human Rights. Nor does it seem to matter that even the most optimistic predictions are that the changes will save a mere £120M, a drop in the ocean of Government spending.
The same attitude last year led the Ministry to ignore all warnings and introduce a catastrophic change in the way that court interpreters were engaged.
The highly paid MoJ civil servants had come up with a plan designed to save £5M on the court interpreters’ bill. Or rather, they fell for the patter of an unsuccessful Dragons’ Den contestant called Gavin Wheeldon, who persuaded the credulous mandarins that if his tiny company, Applied Language Solutions, was given a monopoly it could save money by employing interpreters who had failed their interpreting exams at dramatically reduced rates. Predictably the qualified interpreters have left the profession in droves and the decline in quality has been plain for all to see. The only winner has been Mr Wheeldon himself who cleverly sold his company to Capita PLC for £7.5M just weeks before the new system was brought into effect; while government and the public, and for that matter (although it is hard to feel much sympathy for them) Capita, were left to struggle with a system that was demonstrably useless.
Examples of the continuing disastrous effect of the interpreters scandal are not hard to find. Possibly the gravest case to be heard anywhere in the country this year is that of R v. Anxiang Du. Mr Du is accused of stabbing four members of the same family to death. He requires a Mandarin interpreter.
So when the case was listed at Nottingham Crown Court one morning earlier this month the judge, Mr Justice Flaux, was surprised to receive a telephone call via his clerk, explaining that no interpreter was coming because “it was not worth the interpreter’s time to turn up because they would not make enough money.”
Understandably the judge expressed his dissatisfaction, and an interpreter was promised for half past two. But still nobody turned up: not even the rabbit that Applied Language Solutions had generously allowed to register as a Lapine interpreter in a demonstration of the same rigorous quality standards that Mr Grayling intends to apply to “providers” under his current proposals..
It was, as the learned judge observed, “an absolute disgrace” that a case of this gravity should be delayed because of a failure to provide an interpreter, but to anyone who has been working in the courts in the last 18 months it was just business as usual. The Ministry of Justice’s new arrangement for booking interpreters has been, to summarise the views of two Select Committees, a complete and utter shambles. The whole unhappy affair was described in December by Margaret Hodge, Chair of the respected all party Public Accounts Committee as “an object-lesson in how not to contract out a public service.” How much public money has been squandered in lost court time, adjournments and unnecessary remands, to say nothing of wrongful convictions and acquittals it is impossible to say. The system has only been able to stagger on as long as it has because courts were almost immediately allowed to revert to the old system of booking interpreters.
The minister directly responsible, Crispin Blunt, was sacked at the last reshuffle, while the former Justice Secretary Ken Clarke was relieved of his responsibility for justice. One would have thought that having been responsible for such a nightmare, the MoJ would be apologetic and anxious not to repeat the same mistakes.
But far from apologising for the chaos, the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Justice Ursula Brennan, who was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the Bath in the 2013 New Years Honours list, has boasted to Civil Service World of how her department forced through the changes quickly:
“Interpreters were going to get less money, and they understandably were really opposed to the changes we were going to make, so the people here had to make a judgement about how swiftly we flipped over to the new regime. … The longer we carried on debating and discussing, the more the interpreters thought: ‘The MoJ will probably change its mind and not make these changes.’ So we needed to move reasonably swiftly.”
So when Mr Grayling announces that the plans will go ahead in the absence of “a stunning alternative” one somehow hears the the Dame Commander of the Bath urging him on and telling him not to listen to any criticism.
If so, she is urging him on to the same oblivion that has swallowed his predecessors. As far as she is concerned no doubt she will retire with dignity and a well earned robe fashioned from whatever cloth is appropriate for a Dame Commander of the Bath. I would suggest cheap towelling.