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Today marks thirty years since I started work at Edward Fail, Bradshaw & Waterson Solicitors as a trainee solicitor.
My training principal was John Lafferty, who ran the firm for many years before becoming a Crown Court Judge at Snaresbrook, the first blind judge. The senior partner at the time I joined, Howard Riddle, went on to become the Chief Magistrate in the country.
Although it’s rare in many professions to work for so long at the same firm, working for thirty years at my firm is not particularly unusual. Indeed, there are three other members of staff who have been there longer than I have, and many other members of staff have been at the firm for over ten years.
We have served the East London Community for well over a hundred years and have had a reputation for being a top criminal defence firm for most of that time.
In truth, I have had a wonderful time, and I feel lucky to have worked here. I am proud, and perhaps slightly surprised, at what I have achieved. In recent years, I have had the privilege of working with many other fellow solicitors, on behalf of the profession, in a representative capacity, which has included the odd fight with the government. I missed out on student protests while I was at Polytechnic, but seem to have made up for it in my forties as we organised demonstrations outside the Houses of Parliament and elsewhere. I was proud to receive with others a Legal Aid Lawyer of the year award in 2015 for our campaign against legal aid cuts.
There have been many fun, exciting and also stressful times. The stress began almost immediately. While I was still a trainee, I found myself “fitted up” and intimidated by the police which was a steep learning curve to say the least. But I was supported by my firm, and the outcome was a grovelling apology from the Met Police, although this was after I had been interviewed under caution.
And of course there have been many cases involving individual people with different stories and challenges. I still chuckle at the client in prison awaiting trial for armed robbery who, when asked by his Queen’s Counsel if there was someone of good character and notoriety who might give evidence of his good character, suggested, with a straight face, Reggie Kray. Or the client who I visited in prison after I had had a radical hair cut who wrote to me a few days after the visit to say that he did not like the hair cut and if I felt similarly he would shoot the barber.
But, most importantly, it has been a privilege to work in an area of law where I can make a difference. To help people get a second chance and to assist some of the most vulnerable and disenfranchised members of society. Equally importantly, the work ensures that we hold the state to account.
When I was growing up my late father worked in the ‘shmatter’ (clothing) business. He was very keen that I did not go into the same trade and, together with my mother, encouraged me and supported my education so that I could get a professional qualification.
Sadly, today I feel the same about my own job.
Notwithstanding all of the above, my job, and the profession as a whole, is completely different thirty years on. Colleagues are leaving in their droves. When I was a trainee solicitor my firm had twelve trainees. Now, we never have more than one or two. Often we have none. The average age of a duty solicitor is over fifty. In the last year alone, two colleagues have left to join the Crown Prosecution Service, and one young talented solicitor is shortly due to leave to retrain as a teacher. This isn’t because our firm has suddenly become an unhappy place to work. It’s because they see no future in this type of work.
And this is not another criminal solicitor just moaning about legal aid rates. The whole criminal justice system is broken. Victims of crime face huge delays between the date of offence and resolution, if indeed there is a resolution. A trial for a traffic offence which took place in 2019, and which will take an hour of court time, has been listed for June 2023. Many allegations of serious sexual offences take months to investigate before even a decision is made whether to charge and then months or years until trial. In the meantime, the lives of both the complainant and the accused are put on hold. If you are the victim of a fraud, the chances of conviction are very remote.
The Government, and arguably governments before them, have abandoned the whole criminal justice system. Before Covid-19 struck, half the courts were empty, with the Ministry of Justice unwilling to pay for part-time judges to sit in those courts in order to clear the huge backlog of cases. In some court buildings there were more buckets dealing with the leaking roofs than sitting judges.
Many police stations have been shut and sold off, as have many court buildings. By the time you have completed the online recording of a crime the alleged offender has probably committed six further offences.
An effective criminal justice system is a fundamental pillar of democracy. But the reality is that it’s not a vote winner, and so successive governments have cut funding and ignored it.
This government in particular seems to have little regard for the rule of law and for accountability. The result is that if you go into my area of law you are accepting that the level of remuneration will be nothing compared to lawyers working in the commercial sector. And while there are many other benefits, such as the exciting opportunities to make a difference to real people with real life challenges, sadly this choice is no longer tenable for many starting out. With no rise in legal aid rates for over twenty years, and many firms shutting their doors, the future for those who want to enter this field is much more uncertain. Earning low wages for very long hours and dealing with stressful life situations is not sustainable.
That said, I am very grateful and proud to be senior partner at Edward Fail, Bradshaw & Waterson. Whilst I face other difficult personal challenges at home I am lucky to have the support of fantastic partners and wonderful colleagues. Despite all of the above I love what I do. Every stakeholder in the system needs support and investment soon or it will collapse. I hope this happens so that many others will have the opportunities that I have had.
In normal times, on an occasion like this, we would have had a typical Edward Fail social evening. This would consist of hiring a room in a local East End pub, organising a buffet, inviting all the staff and old friends. There would no doubt be the odd speech and we would all go home late and slightly the worse for wear for alcohol.
This won’t happen this time but thirty years in East London still seems worthy of a mention and a whisky at home.