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'There Are No Votes in Money for Criminals' – Why the Legal System Is in Crisis

We spoke to a leading QC about how legal aid cuts have caused chaos in UK court rooms.
Legal aid
A legal aid cuts protest (Guy Corbishley / Alamy Stock Photo)

To label what the Legal Aid budget has suffered in the last decade "cuts" is far too soft; it's obliteration. There has been a £1 billion shrinkage in the last five years, while the Ministry of Justice reports a 40 percent cut to its overall budget by 2019-2020.

That this is not yet a national scandal seems odd. But then, how often are you in trouble with the law, or finding yourself in need of legal representation?


Put simply, Legal Aid is a government-backed safeguard that offers support to those who can't afford it. "The state subsidy of legal services [is]… supposed to ensure that it isn't only the rich who can vindicate their rights," as one LRB essay puts it. In 2009, England and Wales led the way in per capita spending on Legal Aid, with £2 billion earmarked and approximately 29 percent of the population covered under the qualification criteria. With that £2 billion figure now halved, there have been deeply worrying developments, including a marked rise in defendants appearing in criminal courts without legal advice and representation.

The ripple out effects of this seem obvious. Over half the judges questioned in a recent study raised concerns over defendants not understanding that pleading guilty can reduce a sentence, as well as the possible impact on witnesses of being questioned by people who may have harmed them, rather than through a lawyer. There are also the obvious "difficulties in presenting legal arguments or complex financial information" to contend with; we've all seen those films where someone hamfistedly tries to represent themselves in court by appealing to what they think counts as fair.

Few are better placed to offer analysis on the subject than William Clegg QC. His 47-year career has seen him act as the defence in some of the UK's most notorious criminal trials, from both the initial trial and retrial of Barry George in the Jill Dando murder, to Joanna Yeates, the Wimbledon Common murders and Colin Stagg's dramatic acquittal.


While his new memoir, Under the Wig: A Lawyer’s Stories of Murder, Guilt and Innocence, makes for lurid reading on some of the most notorious cases of the last half-century, including Britain's first prosecution for Nazi war crimes, it's the sections on Legal Aid that prove the most impassioned.

Clegg is currently the head of chambers at 2 Bedford Row, where we met to discuss the book and what happens next to a legal system already failing the most vulnerable.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

VICE: The book differs from a typical end-of-career memoir in the section on Legal Aid cuts, where you become really quite animated. Could you talk me through that a bit more?
Clegg: It's just turning the clock back 30 or 40 years, in many ways. One of the great things that the criminal law has done since I've been practising is to make being a barrister more accessible to people of various diversities. When I started, it was still quite rare to have someone from – what was then – a Secondary Modern School. People from what I would call an "ordinary background", not from public school and that sort of thing.

One of the reasons that people like me could think about it was that it paid a proper wage. You didn’t have to subsidise your career from a private income. We’ve now reached a position where the fees on Legal Aid are so low that it's effecting who comes into the profession. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to carry on without family money or another source of wealth. The attendant risks outweigh the benefits. We forget how long it takes to train. It’s not just three years at university. There’s the four-year postgraduate and a year's pupillage. And then you’re only at the very bottom of the ladder after five years of training.


I feel sad that [diversity] has been hit by these cuts. People should be rewarded properly for what is a difficult and challenging job. Cuts have been made progressively over the years in a way that I don't think applies to any other profession.

How bad would you say the situation in the justice system is currently?
The whole justice system is in crisis. If you go to a court, as I did on Monday, then you’ll see what I mean. The lifts don’t work, the lavatories are blocked, the carpet is threadbare, the canteen had been shut for nine months. There’s a general feeling of squalor. And morale in the staff and judges is at an all-time low. There's no will to change and no plan that’s ever carried forward. It seems to me that most Justice Secretaries view the post as a springboard to something else. There must have been about four or five in the past seven or eight years. [There have been six since 2010]

How a department can run with a constantly changing head like that is a mystery.

And this is down to austerity.
Yes. And yet, we live in a country with one of the largest economies in the world. The money is there, it's just being spent on the wrong things. The system worked perfectly well 15 to 20 years ago. It’s been driven to breaking point by these cuts. Often, the court can't sit because there are no staff. There’s one clerk, who has to work across two or three cases. Costs are being incurred, even if you’re "saving" a couple of hundred pounds by not employing a second clerk. Yet you’re wasting several thousand in legal fees by not starting a case on time. It’s very difficult to row back from things once they’ve been diminished.


Is part of the lack of pushback something to do with public mystification? We all know what the NHS does, or have an opinion on the education system, but great swathes of the middle classes might not consider the justice system something that impinges on them, particularly in terms of criminal defence law?
I think there’s a lot in that. You could never get away with cutting [rather than freezing] the salaries of nurses. There would be a huge public outcry. Everyone loves nurses – they save lives, as do doctors. The perception of barristers – and indeed the whole court system – isn’t really appreciated by people. But when you actually think about it, it’s pivotal to a civilised society.

I get the impression that the government think it's an easy target for cuts – why give lots of money to criminals who are trying to get loads of money, just in order to get themselves off? I think that's the philosophy behind it. "There are no votes in money for criminals." That's the way it's looked at – not: "money for people who don't have the means to fight the case".

I think there’s also something in the public imagination about lawyers. They can’t be far off journalists in the league table of mistrust. Is it fair to say that it’s quite opaque, to most people, as to what a barrister actually does?
Journalists at least have a respectable investigative role to play. With regards to the second point, that’s what I hoped the book will achieve: to demystify what it is we do and why we do it. The big difference between us and journalists is that no journalist is paid by the state. But a lot of barristers are, and have to be. If someone is accused of a serious crime and doesn’t have any money, then the state should pay for it. [The] reported rise in people defending themselves is a direct result of the cuts. There are more and more who can’t get Legal Aid and certainly can’t pay for representation themselves.

The terrifying thing is that it doesn’t even seem to have bottomed out yet. Is it possible that the full force of the cutbacks have yet to be fully felt?
It can get worse. There are further cuts [in 2020] that I understand the government are looking to make to public spending. I’ve no doubt at all that the Justice Department will be asked to share some of those. We’re at 40 percent already and it can’t survive on that. How much worse can it get, is the question.