Justice matters, and it costs

Front page of the Daily Mail bearing the headline "£465,000 legal aid for PC Harper's killers: 'Horrified' widow says: Now we know the cost of injustice

Last Friday some of the tabloids led with a story whingeing about the money that was spent on the defence of the men convicted of manslaughter in the case of PC Andrew Harper, who was killed by three serial robbers in west Berkshire last year. Legal Aid is the system by which the state pays for the defence of people accused of crime, so that they can be fairly represented in court against a state that will have access to its own lawyers and the money to pay for them. The case has been the focus of a public campaign to change the law so that anyone convicted of killing a police officer or other emergency services staff gets a life sentence with a whole-life tariff, even if the offence is manslaughter rather than murder (which in the case of police officers, already results in a whole-life sentence) as the officer’s family and some prominent people are dissatisfied with the verdict (see previous entry for why this change in the law is a stupid idea). The Secret Barrister posted a thread on Twitter explaining why the story, which he called a “truly vile exploitation of a grieving widow to make dishonest and intellectually void attacks on legal aid and the rule of law”, was “nonsense” and was criticised for over-emphasising the matter of where the money went (mostly, not to the lawyers) rather than the importance of legal aid itself and the right to a fair trial, which only made an appearance eight tweets into the series.

The criticism really has a ring of “it’s the intellectual elite again, talking down to ordinary people, you’ll never win an election like that”. The Secret Barrister’s name gives away his profession; he is not, right now, a politician looking to be elected to anything. But there was nothing untrue in what he posted. Justice costs money; the law costs money, because it’s complicated from having been built up over centuries, and legal representatives have to have been through years of legal training. The barrister cannot fight the case on their own; they need assistants, researchers and so on, all of whom have to be paid. They have overheads, such as the cost of their offices. Some of the cost will have gone straight back to the treasury as VAT. The figure quoted, which was exaggerated, was gross rather than net; it was nobody’s take-home pay. The figure quoted was meant to give the impression of a “fat cat lawyer” taking a huge amount of money off the taxpayer for fighting an undeserving case, a standard trope of right-wing media and politicians in recent years (and particularly when Legal Aid is being cut).

However, this money would all be spent on any of us if we were accused of a crime; it could be to prove our innocence or to prove that our wrongdoing was not as severe as the Crown contends. We cannot assume that only wrongdoers are ever accused of crime. It means equality before the law, because as legal services are expensive, anyone without the money to pay for them is at an automatic disadvantage compared to a wealthy opponent, including the Crown. This is justice; if people cannot defend themselves, other than by saying “I didn’t do it” to a court dazzled by the Crown’s presentation, the court becomes little better than a lynch mob with wigs and posh accents. Already, because Legal Aid has been cut or almost abolished in other areas, courts are facing litigants in person in such matters as child custody where previously a parent (often a mother who had not worked as much as her ex-husband, because she was looking after their children) could have relied on a lawyer to help demonstrate her fitness to parent or the shortcomings of the other parent; the presence of the lawyer means the case can be presented calmly rather than emotionally.

The matters of the VAT and fees are facts which the tabloids chose to ignore or misrepresent in their stories. Tabloids do not care much about facts. Access to legal representation, especially when accused of crimes, is among the things which are the essence of justice. It is a fact that our legal system prefers wrongful acquittals to wrongful convictions, as the latter results in an innocent person losing years of his or her freedom to no benefit to the public or the crime’s victims; this may well lead, occasionally, to someone being found innocent when they were guilty or guilty of a lesser crime than perhaps they should have been. Yet the Tory attacks on legal aid and the tabloid press cheerleading appeals to a certain sentiment whereby fairness is a thing expected by only the weak and the wrong, or both, and is not something other people (read taxpayers) should have to pay to facilitate. It is much the same as with welfare and disability allowances; people are conditioned to regard them as merely their money being given to other people rather than something everything benefits from and which they might need themselves (note how Tories use ‘fairness’ in publicity announcing cuts in public subsidy to services for disabled people; to them the term only means those with money being allowed to keep it), but most of all as what gives this country any claim to be civilised. Justice.

There is a saying in politics that if you are explaining, you are losing. Democracy is in danger if it has to be explained to people why justice matters and that the money spent on it is worth it, and all the more so if it is a futile exercise to do so. If people have been conditioned to despise justice, democracy becomes little better than mob rule and the tyranny of the intolerant majority. We have remained a tolerant society so far because governments do not pander to popular whims as expressed in tabloids; the truth is that “the people” sometimes have to be told what’s what, especially when the issue is a criminal case which was heard in court where they were not present.

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