Kevin Poulter has a discussion about legal aid and learns some business acumen from the criminal underworld during a weekend in the West Country
A tent in a farmer’s field, somewhere in the West Country, is not the most obvious place to happen upon a group of lawyers discussing the swingeing cuts being made to the legal aid budget. But there we were. It was three o’clock on a damp Thursday afternoon in late June. Like me, most of those gathered had visibly enjoyed little sleep the previous night and were already, noticeably, unclean and worse for a visit to the cider tent. Like thousands of weary travellers (intended here to have the ‘travelling from afar’ meaning rather than the ‘way of life’ one, but those too), I was at the world famous Glastonbury Festival, where bemused politicians, septuagenarian rockers and over-enthusiastic teenagers meet in a shared state of apparent poverty. For one weekend, this collection of fields becomes the largest city in Somerset, so it was inevitable that at least a few festival-goers would be interested in legal aid, right?
It may have been the sudden downpour of rain which brought some visitors to the tent, exhibiting more interest in the mugs of tea and a dry seat than the discussion, but it was pleasantly busy. And there was debate.
Led by ‘Alex’ (Susan Alexander of the Travellers Aid Trust) and ‘Craig’ (a ‘non-commercial lawyer’ with the Community Law Partnership making £35k a year, so we’re told), there was much criticism and not what you might call balance. The two were railing against any reform to the current system. Chris Grayling was accused (not for the first time) of ‘narrow-mindedness’ and legal education providers were criticised for not including ‘more interesting’ social welfare law in the curriculum. (Something else that the LETR failed to pick up on.)
There was some confusion on the panel as to whether the consultation had closed (it had) and whether the suggestion of 13,000 responses was true (seems to be, in spite of some automatically generated email responses informing consultees that their responses had been deleted unread) but there was some sensible debate. Audience participation was high with the potential lack of specialist lawyers within the ranks of “Eddie Stobart trucks” and “Tesco Barristers” coming under heavy fire. There was also a suggestion that the potential lack of work would force lawyers to specialise in areas of need and thereby support minority communities, such as travellers and protesters.
Outside of the debating tent, Glastonbury can provide a wealth of entertainment and education. Where else can you make clay models of your idols, learn how to trapeze, be transported to a 1970s New York nightclub and then finish the night in a stone circle with small campfires blazing around you?
My education this time around extended to the world of the apparent drug dealer. Having pitched our tent in the higher extremities of the camp (a lesson learned having suffered from flooding a previous year), we enjoyed space and quiet. That was until our new neighbours arrived, with an industrial generator in tow.
As the weekend continued, snippets of overheard conversations drew out some interesting information and developed similarities between the lives of lawyers and those of the purveyors of (legal) laughing gas.
The hierarchy: the leader sitting at the top, the ‘lookout’, the marketing and sales team and the workers. A simple pyramid design that would be the envy of most partnerships (and ABSs).
The money: “I made £1,000 in 20 minutes” reported one. “People won’t take things for free. They want to pay, albeit with ‘staff discount’,” offered another. It was not clear what the profit margins were, but on a time basis, this is clearly a lucrative industry. If considering diversifying the business model, it is worth noting that “In Liverpool you can hire a gun for an hour for £50.”
Diversification: “You have your legit business and you have your drugs. If you pay your vat on the legit side they won’t touch you.” A spreading of services certainly fits the ABS model. I am sure that HMRC has nothing to concern itself with, though.
Powers of persuasion: These are also key features of the public-facing workers. It seemed clear that there was some acquired skill in talking people into taking things they don’t want.
Status: One thing that lawyers may be averse to, especially some partners I am familiar with, is the ability to exhibit the wealth and status of your position. In the criminal underworld, such luxury is a thing of the past: “I drive a Volvo now. It’s not like the old days. You have to blend in. If you have a 7 series, it’s like a sign.”
As you can imagine, I came away from my Glastonbury experience a little more tired, a little dirtier and a whole lot wiser about the world we live in. But over the noise of the generator, only one comment had me biting my lip and holding back my cries of protest: “Northerners are all massive. They eat. Have you seen the chip shops? One hour queues. They’re mental.”
Clearly they hadn’t needed to use a Glastonbury toilet at 9am!