Make no mistake, the cuts to the legal aid budget will have ramifications for the ability of less well off people to have access to justice. The media, in particular the BBC, will continue to tease out individual cases as part of its activism to make the case against cutting legal aid.
But the fact remains that legal aid has been abused by many people who easily have sufficient means to fund legal counsel, and by a number of solicitors and barristers, some of whom have become extremely wealthy over the years as a result. Legal aid has also been used by convicted criminals to make unwarranted, nuisance challenges to punishments and restrictions justly handed down to them.
So it is of no surprise to hear yet more bleating from vested interests about how they are being adversely affected by the cuts after years of living happy on the hog, milking the legal aid fund to maintain very comfortable lifestyles indeed at our expense.
The most prominent example of this has surfaced in the Telegraph today, as Michael Mansfield QC’s firm, Tooks Chambers, has announced it is to cease taking client instruction from next month and close at the end of the year – as a direct result of the legal aid funding reductions.
Since the miner’s strike, joint head of chambers Mansfield has made a lucrative living taking on human rights cases and challenges to the establishment. So much so that in legal circles he earned the nickname Mr Moneybags, with earnings apparently exceeding £700,000 per year.
A good example of how Mansfield earned this title, at the expense of taxpayers, is retailed in a Daily Mail piece from 2007. It recalls how even as far back as 1998, Mansfield represented a client in a criminal appeal before the House of Lords. In return for 43 hours work he submitted a legal aid bill of £22,300, or more than £500 per hour. Apparently after the Lord Chancellor criticised the fee, Mansfield very generously knocked £10,000 off the bill and only took £12,300 from the public purse.
There is no doubt that Mansfield has, during his career, taken on deserving cases in need of justice. But the issue is the manner of his treatment of the public purse. The Telegraph piece sets out what steps Mansfield and other Tooks’ barristers are being forced to take in order to start a new chambers and keep working after Tooks has gone:
Mr Mansfield said he plans to form his own, low-cost chambers “within the near future”.
Fifteen barristers from Tooks are expected to join the new set, to be called Mansfield Chambers, which will keep overheads low by employing fewer clerks, sharing desks in cheaper offices and using free computer software.
Only now, with limits put in place on the previously never ending reservoir of public money wrested from us through taxation, are some of these well-heeled legal eagles starting to be mindful of the costs they incur that they have long relied upon us to fund.
Where was this focus on costs previously? The only conclusion that can be drawn here is that many solicitors and barristers are now reaping what they have long sown.
Had they charged reasonable fees and sought to be responsible in their use of other people’s money, perhaps the legal aid cutbacks would not have needed to be so drastic – and most importantly, more innocent people in need of help to fund worthy cases would not be squeezed out and left at the mercy of better resourced parties.
Perhaps this is something the BBC and other agenda based media would do well to consider when attacking the government.