BEST BAR NONE: Defenders take their case to the streets outside Southwark Crown Court, London
As they once again take industrial action, lawyer and crime novelist Tony Kent admits: “No one has ever lost a vote by taking a pound out of a lawyer’s pocket. It’s easy to call us fat cats, but the reality is that government cuts have crippled the justice system.
Kent, who grew up in a difficult public housing project with an older brother in constant trouble with the police, continues: “What you have to remember is that there are people who join the bar where I come from, and others who join the bar. of privilege.
“But that doesn’t mean you could afford a £1,100 handbag. I can assure you that even then it was not bought on his salary.
In fact, the lawyer in question admitted that her expensive “Bayswater” bag had been a gift from her mother. But the lawyers protesting again this week against the underfunding of the justice system in England and Wales are unlikely to make a similar “public relations” error.
Eight years later, they have adopted a work-to-rule policy, refusing referrals from other attorneys who cannot appear because another trial has ended.
“My first two years at the bar in 2002-2003 marked the end of the good times,” says Kent. “At that time, the legal aid system allowed everyone to have their representation paid by the State, whatever their means. This led to an uncontrollable fiscal spiral.
“But New Labour, rather than admitting that paying for millionaires was a mistake, decided to create and then attack this myth of ‘big legal aid lawyers’. Unfortunately, this myth has remained.
PRIVILEGED PICKET LINE: Lawyers protest legal aid cuts
Kent began his career in London’s main criminal chambers, 2 Bedford Row. “I stayed with them for 11 years. But I saw where legal aid was going. I had a lawyer friend who was in charge of crime for one of the biggest corporations, so we started a business to defend people the way we thought they should be defended.
Although he moved into the private sector at Ewing Law, he still occasionally takes legal aid cases to “sleep at night”.
“When I started, before the cuts started, as a junior on a three-month murder case, you were paid very well. But that was rare and it was over in 2005,” he says.
“Since then wages have gone down and down as low wages are now a deterrent to people joining. They have made the bar a rich man’s job again.
The Criminal Bar Association, which represents 2,400 lawyers in England and Wales, says the real earnings of criminal defense lawyers have fallen by 28% over the past two decades. Junior barristers, who typically start at £12,000 a year, are leaving the profession in droves and the cuts have prevented barristers from appearing in court for trials.
LEGAL MAN: Thriller screenwriter Tony Kent after being called to the Bar at 22
All of this, critics say, has created a two-tier legal system in which only the wealthy can afford first-class representation.
The latest strike comes despite a £135m boost to the criminal legal aid budget, allegedly a 15% increase. It was the minimum recommended by former judge Sir Christopher Bellamy QC in an independent review into the fight against the staggering 59,000 case backlog in the Crown Court system alone.
Kent says the increase – more than seven per cent, he calculates, when the extra work has been taken into account – will be eaten up by inflation by the time lawyers are allowed to bill next year.
No Way To Die, published today, believes the system remains on the verge of collapse.
“As isolated as I am, I still see the impact. Four times in the last year I went to court only to find they couldn’t find a prosecutor. This has never happened once in the last 19 years and it is because we are losing lawyers.
Lucrative private business allows his own firm to suffer losses in some legal aid cases.
“I’m not very religious, but I was raised Irish Catholic,” Kent says. “It doesn’t matter if you go to church or believe in Jesus, you have cultural guilt.”
As for diversity at the bar, Kent says she is suffering from the cuts.
“A few years ago, when Liz Truss was Attorney General, she said it was a shame that there weren’t enough QCs or Asian or black judges. But for 20 years there have been had more Asian applicants than as a proportion of the population, and far more women than men.
“New entrants still have to learn their trade before they can become a QC or a judge, but we were still well ahead of the game when it came to diversity. It’s now stopped – it’s gone.
“The number of women dropping out is huge and the reduction in minorities applying is huge. You can’t do this job as a working mother, you can’t do this job if you come from my background.
His own early life, growing up in a North West London housing estate, the son of a builder and a housewife and the first member of his family to pass the GCSE, let alone go to university, was at the opposite of the privileged reputation of law. .
When an old man heard he had bar assumed he meant years ago, in a pub in Ruislip near where he grew up, he came across an old classmate who told him asked what he was doing.
“When I said I had just graduated from bar school, he assumed I was a bartender,” he smiles. “I explained what it really was and he said, ‘Imagine that, coming from a family of bad guys and becoming a lawyer’.”
In fact, Kent’s family members aren’t all villains, but his older brother has been in and out of prison – inadvertently inspiring his legal career when the family traveled to Aylesbury Crown Court where Derek was on trial for jewelry theft.
“We never had any illusions. We would never have gone to court for him without it because he didn’t. It was old school stitched up with planted evidence. The police said, ‘Your mother will be worried about you, if you tell us you did it, you can go home.’ He was only 17 and it’s the oldest trick in the book.
“So they had a voir dire – a trial in a trial on the admissibility of evidence. For three days, his lawyer, Selwyn Shapiro, took the police aside. The whole case was dismissed but, 15 minutes into the day, I forgot my brother was there. I was so completely taken by what he was doing.
“I remember going out and saying to my mom, ‘This is the job I want to do. I was 14 years old. She said to me: “It’s good to have ambition, but don’t tell anyone, they will laugh at you”.
Instead, aged 16, he applied for the army but his mother refused to sign his papers so, to kill time until he was old enough to reapply, Kent taken A-Levels.
“I met them and mom said, ‘Maybe this lawyer thing isn’t such a bad idea after all.’ I hadn’t applied to college, so I found the only which appeared to have a boxing club, Dundee, and it turned out to be the only place in Scotland that applies English law.
Kent was 22 when he wrote the first four chapters of his first thriller, Killer Intent, and stuffed them into a drawer. The novel was finally published in 2018.
Kent – described as Britain’s David Baldacci – has now penned three more thrillers. “I didn’t touch Killer Intent for ten years because I was so busy.” His second book, Marked For Death, was inspired by a real event.
“I remember walking into the chambers and everyone was nervous because this guy they had chased 20 years earlier was being released. But they searched his cell the day before his release and found a list of everyone he was going to kill,” he recalls.
“Now he will never come out. But I thought, ‘What if they hadn’t found the list?’ So you had this character chasing down people who he felt had wronged him.
Tony Kent’s No Way To Die (Elliott & Thompson, £8.99) is out now
Devlin takes a back seat in No Way To Die, which centers on its other protagonist, British investigator Joe Dempsey, based at a fictional United Nations security agency in New York.
“I realize the absurdity of a Briton in the foreground,” he laughs. “I wanted to write James Bond for the 21st century, but Bond can’t work for Britain because who are we now? So I invented a global security agency, an excuse for him to go anywhere.
Back in the real world, Kent fears the government wants an American-style public defense system — which he calls a “guilty plea treadmill.”
“In the United States, you can be told, ‘If you’re convicted, you’ll get 20 years, if you plead guilty, you’ll get two.’ As an innocent, I would take both. In the UK in 2017 you got a third of your potential sentence for pleading guilty in crown court. Now, that only happens if you plead guilty in court before you see any evidence. This is the first step on the road to an American-style plea bargain.
“Besides language, our biggest export is our legal system. Some places like America bastardized it and some places like Canada did it right. Now we are copying the United States. Why would you close half of the magistrates’ courts where 90% of the trials take place unless you know soon enough that you won’t need to have that many trials? »
Kent credits boxing with keeping him on the straight and narrow. “I come from a family of boxers. As soon as you can jog, you learn to throw an uppercut, a hook, and a right cross. Literally this morning I was teaching my son Joseph, and he’s three years old.
He admits he finds writing easy, when he has the time, adding: “I have no intention of giving up my day job, so writing is a release – that’s why I don’t write no dark stuff.
“I’m not trying to educate anyone about politics or how the justice system works. I want people to read my books and feel like they’re watching an exciting movie.
- No Way To Die by Tony Kent (Elliott & Thompson, £8.99) is out now. For free UK delivery on orders over £20 call Express Bookshop on 020 3176 3832 or visit expressbookshop.com