Thursday, January 05, 2006

Divying Up Jarndyce

One of the best bits in the BBC's patchy adaptation of Bleak House was the scene where Ian Richardson- as the bewigged and berobed Head of Chancery- announced that although Jarndyce and Jarndyce had finally been settled, the entire estate had alas been used up on legal fees.

Today's equivalent of Jarndyce is of course the legal aid budget. This has been growing rapidly for years, but has exploded under Labour, from £1.5bn pa in 1996-97 to nearer £2.5bn pa now. Hardly suprising you might say, when you put a bunch of lawyers at the controls of the gravy train.

But be that as it may, Lord Crony of The Inns has been trying to come up with some face saving formula that will keep the gravy flowing while somehow convincing the rest of us that it's under control.

Three eminent QCs have been beavering away and have apparently now discovered that some cases are really rather expensive:

"One involved fraudulent legal aid claims made by a firm of solicitors, estimated by the working party to have cost the legal aid fund £10 million. But the very authority that had been defrauded ended up paying £34 million in defence costs. Another £10 million went on "administration". As the working party concludes, it cost more than £44 million in public funds to try a fraud involving £10 million."

So let's get this right. The Legal Aid Board not only paid out millions of taxpayers' money to a fraudulent solicitor, but they then compounded the problem by paying out zillions more so that other lawyers and "administrators" could sort out the mess. I've heard of a soft touch but that's verging on the...well, criminal.

Anyway it seems that the bulk of the legal aid budget is gobbled up by a small number of very complex cases, particularly fraud. 50% of the money goes on just 1% of the cases.

So the QC's suggest cutting a few corners. They want complex fraud cases tried by specially selected judges who know their way round and can mete out summary justice. Sounds good: I imagine they mean some dudes modelled on Stallone in Judge Dredd ("Five summary executions Judge Dredd? Was that strictly necessary?" "Unavoidable, Sir.").

And cutting the cost of cases might well help with the fight aginst fraud. The crime costs Britain an estimated £16bn pa, and as Chris Hill, head of fraud at the Norwich Union, says: "Fraud is fundamentally fuelling the growth of organised crime in the UK, earning more from fraud than they do from drugs."

The problem is that the victims of fraud find it very difficult to get the authorities to take action. As per, the police often don't want to know, and the penalties even for successful prosecutions are generally laughable against the money involved. Hill says: "We have to get away from the idea that people can serve their time, fly off to an island in the Pacific and live the life of reilly. Where we get those convictions the financial debt should stay with them, and we should recover the money in a more consistent and aggressive way." Which again, Dredd could help with.

So amazingly, these QCs actually seem to be on the right track: cut the cost of fraud trials, have the cases heard by some proper No S**t Judges, and save us taxpayers a pile of dough in the process. Hurrah.

What's that?

I missed a couple of details?

They want to retain juries? But won't that mean the trails take just as long as now?

And it won't save us any money anyway? Huh?

"The group's recommendations should free enough cash to provide more for barristers doing everyday criminal cases, ending their eight-year pay freeze."

So, despite all the words, they're actually just recommending a different way of divying it up between themselves.

Jarndyce and Jarndyce continues.

Picture: BBC

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