CLSA Conference 2017 Opening - Zoe Gascoyne

The theme of our conference this year covers a multitude of sins currently rife within our justice system

What was once a system to be proud of is now a crumbling wreck

I say this in the knowledge that others have been saying it for many years before me

Indeed when I first did work experience with a criminal barrister twenty five years ago I was taken to one side and told that I should re-think my career path

I remember feeling annoyed that someone would think like that and so as a strong-willed, undeterred sixteen year old I continued down my chosen career path

Twenty five years later I find myself giving the same advice to those who do work experience with me

Far from being the envy of all others the criminal justice system is an embarrassment to this country

We find ourselves living in a society where people are deprived of legal aid and deprived of access to justice

We are plagued by the mainstream media who would have the general public believe that legal aid is for evil scroungers benefitting from thousands of pounds of public money that would be better spent elsewhere;

That criminal legal aid lawyers are fat cats and that Judges are enemies of the people

Judges whose independence should never be compromised but who are now assessed by the number of guilty pleas they take and by the speed in which a case is resolved

We are plagued by a fixation with modernising the Court system, something you will hear more about from our keynote speaker Fiona Rutherford

We are told that HMCTS is investing £1b into court reform but the bottom line is you cannot make a silk purse out of a sows ear and so whilst those in charge at HMCTS might have the very best intentions the bottom line is, it is all futile until the basics are put right

We might well end up with impressive court centres sitting 12 hours a day with high tech video link facilities and the option for people to dial in but in reality how does this help administer justice?

How does it ensure that those facing false allegations will ensure that they are properly acquitted?  How does it help complainants to know that those who have wronged them will be punished in a timely and commensurate manner?

The answer is it doesn’t.

The purpose of the Criminal Justice System 'is to deliver justice for all, by convicting and punishing the guilty and helping them to stop offending, whilst protecting the innocent.'

Investing into HMCTS with the current criminal justice system is like building a car without an engine.  The vehicle might look good but it won’t move. It won’t do what it is supposed to.

This is something that the government must accept.

We have a Lord Chancellor who swore on oath that he would discharge his duty to ensure the provision of resources for the efficient and effective support of the courts and yet has just been responsible for overseeing a further cut to criminal legal aid amounting to a 40% reduction in some cases

A reduction that for many is a step too far

A reduction that makes an already difficult job practically impossible

As lawyers we are expected to turn up to court with or without legal aid and advise someone on what is often a poorly prepared and woefully inadequate case summary.

We are no longer allowed time to consider evidence, indeed quite often we are no longer allowed to consider evidence prior to plea.

We are faced with a system that is grossly underfunded

A system in which more and more people find themselves unrepresented

It is a message that should ring out to the general public, a message that should cause them alarm.

Of course it doesn’t because in the eyes of the government and the public the criminal justice system is just another budget, just another drain on the public purse.

Whilst we might be a budget we are one that is worth fighting for.

Fighting for the budget is precisely what the Criminal Law Solicitors Association do. We fight to try and protect it.

Over the last two years and more we have done just that, we have tried every which way we can; refusing work, engaging, petitioning, demonstrating and taking legal action.

As an association we can be proud of the efforts we have made and indeed that we continue to make in light of the most recent announcement to further cut the rates from 1st December onwards

As practitioners we know that solicitors cannot absorb the cut.  There are no cutbacks to be made. Overheads are stripped to the bone.

And so the association prepares for the next battle. We prepare to fight our corner yet again, to protect the collapse of many firms and the loss of many jobs.

The importance of a sustainable legal aid supplier base is something that should never be compromised and yet it is compromised on a regular basis.

It is compromised in many ways, not just by the government and cost savings.

Indeed it is compromised by the profession themselves. By the failure to appreciate the bigger picture.

It is compromised by the infighting, the point scoring and the constant desire to call out those doing their absolute best for the interests of the many and not just the few.

Last year during my opening I spoke about the division between barristers and solicitors and the fact that neither side is superior, that we are two halves of the same whole and that we should recognise this and embrace it.

Little did I know that twelve months later the profession would still be plagued by these problems but this time from within.

Following the demise of two tier we had twelve months to try and regroup, to wipe the slate clean, to make efforts to pull together, to learn lessons from the past and to recognize that unity is our strongest tool

The CLSA had planned, over the last twelve months, to make efforts to think about the future, to take soundings from members and to build the association up into a stronger and more powerful voice for the profession.

Instead we have been forced to spend the last twelve months defending ourselves against those who have sought to re-write history and to undermine us in every which way they can

The actions of those few have sadly caused damage that effects the profession as a whole. Damage because they have created division on the grounds of their own self-interest.

Twelve months which should have been spent preparing for a fight against the inevitable cut has been wasted by their pointless mischief.

Last year I spoke about the fact that we could not rely upon the suspension of the second cut to continue and that we should prepare for the worst.

Twelve months on we face the very thing we dreaded the most, a further cut.

As a profession we must recognise that until we change the way we do things then we will never be treated any differently.

The CLSA committee is made up of a number of individuals; firm owners, employees, sole practitioners and consultants.

We strive to what’s best for the majority. We spend countless hours discussing and debating, not just at meetings but by email and telephone.

We reach decisions on the basis of what is good for the majority. 

Self-interest is weeded out.

In the case of the 14 hours we did what we could and what we felt was right for the majority.  We didn’t ask for the 14 hours, indeed we negotiated it down from 17.5. We tried to negotiate it down to 12 but we couldn’t.

We aren’t responsible for the drafting of the contract and we aren’t responsible for the way in which the terms are audited and yet people sought to point fingers at the very people trying to help.

Think about how ridiculous this has all been, think about the impact it has had.

The CLSA are unique in terms of their ability to build relationships with those in power and whilst we might not always get what we want we always do our best.

Think about how we deal with members problems.  If any one of you has had a problem over the last two years you will know that we put ourselves out there.  We don’t sit back. We take it on and we deal with it.

The CLSA has one agenda and that is to represent the profession to the absolute best of their ability.

Solicitors are an integral part of the criminal justice system.  We undertake approximately 95% of the work.  We are more than just postmen.

We are the experts in our field.

We are not a profession who makes a noise for the sake of it.  There are occasions when we embrace change. There are occasions when we resist it, usually with good reason and usually we are proven to be right.

There have been many costly mistakes made by various governments over the years.  Those costly mistakes have not been made by the profession and if you were to look back in time you would no doubt see that as each of those costly mistakes were being made we were there offering words of advice, offering the benefit of experience only to be ignored in the first instance but vindicated further down the line.

The profession need to have a voice to rely upon.  The profession has that with the CLSA. 

The CLSA only exists because of those few who are willing to get involved for the benefit of everyone.

Over the last year we have had a committee of just seventeen people answering every consultation, attending every meeting with government and other agencies and fighting every battle on behalf of its’ members. 

Without the people willing to volunteer ask yourselves what might happen?

The CLSA is here to speak and to fight on your behalf but we cannot do that without support.

Support and engagement with the committee is essential. Prior to the 1st December the CLSA will fight tooth and nail to do what they can.  All that we ask of you is that you speak to us and provide us with the support that we need.

We need people to join the association, to engage and to get involved.  We need a profession who responds to consultations instead of sitting on social media complaining bitterly.

As members you have a say please, please use it.  You might be a single voice but when all saying the same thing, at the same time those single voices become one big voice.

One big voice is what the CLSA want to be.  We want the ability to speak on behalf of the profession but we cannot do that without the support of the profession.

Thank you all for attending today, thank you for the support that you have shown.

Today I stand down after two years as Chair and I wish whoever my successor may be the very best of luck moving forwards

Thank you to my Vice Chair Sarah Grace and the committee who’s hard work and dedication makes the CLSA everything it should be and more

It is now time to start the conference and to hear from an impressive line-up of speakers to whom, we are most grateful.

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