Not Saussure

October 19, 2006

Earn more than £20,740 a year gross? You’re a ‘high earner’ according to the Government and the BBC

Filed under: Politics, press, Spin — notsaussure @ 1:03 am

From the BBC:

Police and prosecutors are wasting £55m a year by mishandling court cases, a report by a Commons watchdog has said.
The Public Accounts Committee said more than 900,000 out of about 3m magistrate hearings did not go ahead as planned in England and Wales in 2004-5.
The delays cost an estimated £173m, £24m each down to the police and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) individually and £7m jointly, say the MPs.
However, the CPS said the number of ineffective trials were falling.
Prosecution errors leading to delays included losing files or not producing evidence in time.

Well, considering they can’t keep track of terrorism suspects  and foreign prisoners, I suppose it’s hardly surprising a few files go missing, but anyway…

This £55 million a year is considerably more than the £35 million they’re hoping to save through cuts in the legal aid budget, in what the government announced in an astonishing piece of spin and the BBC, at least, let  them get away with unchallenged (I’ve only just noticed this report from October 2nd which the Beeb headlines ‘Rules Stop Legal Aid for Wealthy’):

New rules designed to stop high earners claiming legal aid in England and Wales are expected to save £35m a year, says the government.
The rules, now in force, mean those facing criminal charges in magistrates’ courts only qualify for financial help if they cannot afford a lawyer. […]Last year, Premiership striker El-Hadji Diouf was awarded legal aid to fight a spitting charge, sparking outrage.
And last month, multi-millionaire businessman Gerald Smith, who received legal aid, was jailed for eight years for fraud.
Legal Aid Minister Vera Baird said it was "right" that those who could afford to pay for their defence should do so, rather than the taxpayer.
"The new measures will ensure that money is focused on the most vulnerable who cannot afford to pay for a lawyer," she said.

Nowhere in the report does it tell you what exactly constitutes a high earner in the Government’s (and, presumably, the BBC’s) opinion.   Well, Premiership strikers, certainly, and multi-millionaires.   But who else can no longer claim legal aid?  I quote from the Legal Services Commission’s website:

Some applicants will automatically qualify financially for criminal legal aid.

For those who don’t, the court will apply a simple means test:

gross annual income (divided by) weighting (equals) adjusted income

The weighting considers whether the applicant has a partner or children.

If an applicant’s income is:

  • under £11,590, they qualify
  • over £20,740, they don’t qualify
  • between £11,590 and £20,740, the full means test will be applied.

Yup.   You got it.   In the opinion of HMG, if you earn over £20,740 gross then you’re a ‘high earner‘.   And the BBC failed to pick them up on this.

Meanwhile, demonstrating a spectacular ability to get hold of the wrong end of the stick (though he is MP for South Norfolk, so maybe it’s normal for there), Richard Bacon MP greeted the news about ineffective trials by urging

judges to get tough on criminals who enter a last-minute a guilty plea.
The report suggests guilty pleas were entered on the first day of 40,000 trials in 2004-5, or 21% of the total number.
"Criminals should not be rewarded for pleading guilty at the last minute with over-generous reductions in their sentences," said Mr Bacon.

Errm.   Better, obviously, that people should enter their guilty pleas before the day of the trial which is why a guilty plea at the earliest possible opportunity attracts a 30% discount on sentence while one on the day of the trial attracts a maximum of 10%.  These figures, by the way, come from the Sentencing Guidelines Council, a statutory body set up by the Criminal Justice Act 2003, and appointed by the government, to set sentencing tariffs.   

As anyone involved in the criminal justice system (other than some people who pass the laws, obviously) knows, a fair number of defendants hold off pleading guilty until the day of trial because, quite simply, they’re waiting to see if all the prosecution witnesses turn up.   To be fair, there’s also the psychological effect of waiting to go into court for the thing really to happen rather than just turning up for Plea and Case Management hearings and other pre-trial business meetings.   Even at that late stage, though, you certainly want them to plead guilty rather than go the whole hog and bet on the outcome of a trial costing (in the Crown Court) several grand a day at the very least, plus all the strain and inconvenience for witnesses.  

Indeed, the Sentencing Guidelines Council is at the moment holding a consultation exercise to see, among other things, if the discount for a last-minute guilty plea shouldn’t be increased:

24. A maximum reduction of 10% is provided for those pleas entered at the “door of the court” or after the trial has begun. This was generally accepted as right in principle, but attention has been drawn to situations where the benefits of a guilty plea, even at a late stage, are very great but the scale of reduction is too small to persuade a defendant that it is worthwhile.
25. Two main situations have been put forward:
i) Serious sexual offence – considerable anxiety can be experienced by a victim and the witnesses both by the build up to a trial and by the giving of evidence. For a variety of reasons, a defendant may wait until the day of the trial before entering a guilty plea. Whilst witnesses are not spared the anxiety caused by the build up to the trial, they are spared the anxiety of giving evidence.
ii) Cases scheduled for a lengthy hearing – some cases are expected to take weeks or months to hear. A guilty plea entered on the day of the commencement of the trial or after the trial has begun is still likely to save a substantial amount of court time and public money.

While I don’t expect Mr Bacon necessarily to agree with this, it would have been rather nice if he’d at least shown some indication he was aware of the arguments.   Quite simply, no one is arguing — for reasons which should be clear to anyone prepared to think about it for more than two seconds — that the discount for last-minute guilty pleas should be reduced or that the reason we have so many ineffective trials is that the discounts are too generous if you plead at the last minute.

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