Sunday, 17 February 2013

There's Horse Meat in my Legal Services

The press are having a wonderful time at the moment with the 'horse meat scandal'. It must be a scandal, since the BBC has said so...

It is undoubtedly a problem. The issue does, however, seem to be one of the labelling rather than of the provision of dangerous food. I'm not trying to trivialise the matter - but I do think it's important to remember that, so far as I am aware, there are no reported cases of poisoning, and no-one has been hospitalised.

The story has moved on over the last few days to the point where there are discussions and assertions that the issue is one of the 'every growing demand for cheaper food' and so suppliers may have been driven to find alternative sources for food and, again may, have been less that diligent in checking how a supplier could provide beef at a very low price.

The drive for goods or services at low prices driving down standards... That has a ring of familiarity. The Government is determined to reduce the cost of justice and, at the moment, it would appear that this drive for low price is being done at the expense of quality or standards. Again, it may be a matter of  labelling...

Most people, happily, have little understanding or direct knowledge of the criminal justice system - and long may that continue. I have asked a few friends who have no direct connection of the law how they thought the system would work. These were bright, well read individuals. I asked what they thought would happen if they were arrested for a crime. Most thought that they would be provided with a qualified solicitor at the police station if they did not have access to their own solicitor. If the case went to court most assumed that their solicitor - the same solicitor who saw them at the police station - would be supported by a barrister.

I asked about the meaning of 'solicitor' and would they be happy that they were supported at the police station by a trained legal representative; I asked if they would be content to have a 'solicitor advocate' appear for them in court. Most had no idea of the difference or if the difference was important.

I do not suggest that there is a problem if you are represented by a solicitor advocate rather than a barrister (although I would possibly prefer a barrister for something complicated, that is personal preference rather than anything else). I do, however, suggest that we are not labelling the service properly so that clients can make their own mind up. There should be much more transparency about the various roles within the legal system and of what your choices are or will be. You should be clearly told who and what the person representing you is - whether for the prosecution or for the defence.

If I buy beef, I expect to eat beef. If I am represented in court, I expect a barrister - at the very least I must be made aware of the fact that my advocate is not a barrister, and of what that means. That way there is a chance for me to make an informed choice.

By fudging the issue and by being less transparent than the industry could and should be, we may be paving the way for yet another 'scandal' in the future.

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