Sir Ivan Lawrence QC: The government’s legal aid cuts are “total madness”, “weakening” and “betraying” the rule of law

by Carl Gardner on June 7, 2014

Speaking to members of the Tory Reform Group today, the former Conservative MP Sir Ivan Lawrence QC attacked what he called the “total madness” of the government’s legal aid policy, saying it was “fatuous”, will make at best “pitiful” savings, and is “against all we stand for”.

Sir Ivan tried to speak for five to ten minutes, though he told his audience that would be hard – and he certainly didn’t manage it.

We, the Conservative party, are the party of the rule of law …

he told them, and

… we’re the party of law and order … What on earth are we doing weakening both of those, betraying both of those, when we’re a Conservative party?

He compared the savings aimed at by the Ministry of Justice with the sums spent on the “ring-fenced” NHS:

Why on earth are we doing this when, at the very highest, we’ll save a pitiful £220 million a year – which is but a twinkle in the eye of anybody running the National Health Service. It’s half a day’s expenditure. And at the worst, it’s going to cost very much more than £220 million to provide the service as an alternative to what we now have with an independent bar …

And he worried, in old-fashioned street-level political and social terms, about the demotivating effect on some of the Conservative’s key volunteers next year:

the hundred and twenty or thirty [thousand] solicitors and their wives and families, and the fifteen thousand barristers who are affected with their wives and families, making up a quarter of a million people, a handful of whom will needed to win or lose some of these critical marginal seats which are now being threatened by UKIP – what are we doing that for, when we may lose half a dozen seats because of this sort of behaviour?

He did not spare the government:

It almost beggars thought that a Tory party is doing these things, for the second reason because it’s fatuous, and for the first reason because it’s fundamental, and against all we stand for.

And he rejected the myth of fat-cattery:

All the years that I’ve been at the criminal bar, it’s been a reasonable living; but it hasn’t been a fat cat living. And now they’ve slashed, and they’ve slashed, and they’ve slashed.

The reality, he said, was very different:

I know criminal juniors who’ve been at the bar for twenty or thirty years who cannot be said to be make a living at the publicly funded bar. You can’t do it on £46.50 a day or £100 a day, unless you’re in court every single day there is, and if you are in court every single day there is, and you’re earning £100 a day, you’re not earning more than £22,200.

He attacked the government for giving a different impression:

It’s a blot on the idiocy of this government and the government before it  … that they go around saying that the average earning of the criminal practitioner is £85,000 a year when it’s nothing like that … Half the criminal bar doesn’t make a living.

He put the bar’s earnings in the historical perspective of his own career:

I’ve done the rounds, and when I do a murder trial now, or a fraud trial now, my clerk tells me I get paid less than half – much less than half – I would have been paid for doing the same work twenty years ago … Now, who wants to come to the criminal bar? Who wants to come from university with a thirty, forty thousand pound loan, to go the criminal bar. I wouldn’t.

Sir Ivan questioned the fiscal sense behind the public defender service:

Let me tell you about the criminal defence service … when it really develops it will be as expensive as the Crown Prosecution Service is, with its offices, and its rigid hours, and its pensions, and its equipment and hotels and travel and everything else paid for.

Sir Ivan reckoned the cost of a PDS silk at at least £200,000, double what they were earning at the independent bar.

What’s the government going to do to save £200,000? Spend £400,000 to save it? A billion pounds to save it? It’s total madness.

He attacked the civil service, blaming them for government policy:

The civil service has an agenda. I was there, I know them, I’ve talked to them .. what the civil service wants is a fused profession, it wants one lawyer because in Europe they have one lawyer …

He followed up with a Peter Lilley-esque impression of various Europeans and their bafflement at the concept of Queen’s Counsel. He went on with his accusations against Whitehall:

The civil service, left to it, are the ones that make the decisions that kill us. They don’t care so much about what the Tory party’s policies on the rule of law are, the civil service is the civil service, they’re not policy people … if politicians couldn’t care less because they’ve got other fish to fry, other problems to solve, then the civil service begin to get a little political and do their own thing.

Strikes by lawyers, he said, are

the only thing that’ll stop the civil service, the only thing that will get the government frightened, that will get them to have the sort of pause that will get them to look at the true position.

Sir Ivan ended by encouraging young and ambitious Conservatives to

spearhead the activity against this government or any other government that wants to cripple, by legal aid cuts, the financing of the finest criminal justice system in the world, and destroy what the Tory party has always felt is one of its proudest boasts – that we are the party of law and order and we are the party of the rule of law. And long may it continue.

It was a small audience – less than thirty – that enthusiastically applauded Sir Ivan; and the Tory Reform Group may not typify opinion in the relatively right-wing Conservative party of 2014. Sir Ivan Lawrence is an unapologetically old-school Tory, and a dyed-in-the-wool criminal barrister who arguably has much less in common on this particular issue with the average Tory activist than with his left-wing colleagues at the bar.

Still, we’re bound to wonder how many Conservatives full-bloodedly support Chris Grayling’s policy and how many, in truth, have some sympathy with Sir Ivan’s strongly worded and strongly argued opposition.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Paul Magrath June 7, 2014 at 22:07

These are excellent recordings (I listened to Shami as well).

2 Paul Magrath June 8, 2014 at 00:07

Shami Chakrabarti says “Supertanker” policy of legal aid cuts was set in motion by New Labour – who coined phrases about “fat cat” lawyers on “gravy train” of legal aid. Coalition merely continued in same direction. She questions whether anyone has political will to turn it around, and doubts if Labour can or will: “I haven’t heard a single promise from either Mr Khan or any other member of the shadow cabinet [about] a reversal of this policy or any positive promise on legal aid. And I think it’s just absolutely essential that between now and the general election … that some policies are secured.” (at 13:35 – 14:00)

3 Carl Gardner June 8, 2014 at 00:57

Thanks, Paul. I’ll be writing about Shami’s speech tomorrow!

4 Nile June 8, 2014 at 10:10

“…How many Conservatives full-bloodedly support Chris Grayling’s policy?”

I can’t tell you how many, but I can show you how to identify them: all you have to do is wait.

Wait, and eventually the Public Defender Service will be reorganised and ‘rebranded’ as the Public Defender Agency, ready to be sold off to Capita, or Serco, or Group4, or a management buy-out bankrolled by some dismal syndicate of avaricious private equity funds.

Thus, a destructive reduction in service to the public, accompanied by an unnecessary increase in expenditure, will be followed by a wilfully-mispriced sale that grands a profitable monopoly to a private company.

This is the single predominant policy for providing public services in Britain today, and it enjoys the enthusiastic support of all significant political parties in Parliament.

All you need to do is wait, and identify the individuals who profit – now, as shareholders and directors, or as recipients of consultancy fees and donations; or later, in their comfortable retirement as non-executive directors – and you will have your full-blooded supporters, red in tooth and claw.

5 Graham Pressler June 8, 2014 at 13:16

Absolutely spot on. Exactly what I’ve been saying for ages

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