Reflecting on the recent victory of my client Sharon Binks over Greater Manchester Police at trial at Manchester County Court, as well as that of my client Paul Peters over Merseyside Police at Liverpool County Court, brings home to me the importance of the no win, no fee system we have in this country and – frankly – the importance of lawyers such as myself who are prepared to run such cases all the way to trial in the face of significant financial risk and all the opposition which the well-resourced and publically funded institutions of the Police can marshal against us.
Up until the late 1990s Legal Aid was widely available for low and middle- income clients – the vast majority of litigants of course – for both personal injury actions and claims against the Police.
From 1999 the availability of public funding for the individual citizen (as opposed, of course, to institutions such as the Police who are directly funded by the public purse) was drastically reduced, and although it remains available for claims against detaining authorities such as the Police, that availability is essentially limited to people who are either unemployed or of very low income, and even then, only when the Legal Aid Agency consider that the merits of the claim justify proceedings by reference to the likely costs and damages of the same: a clinical assessment by a risk-adverse bureaucracy which very often results in a refusal to fund the case.
As paying a lawyer to pursue compensation claims against the Police involves outlays of thousands of pounds, this – combined with the limited availability of Legal Aid – means that without ‘no win, no fee’ specialists such as myself – willing to put our money where our clients’ mouths are – access to justice for the majority of the population would be egregiously limited. In effect, we have to be willing to potentially work for free, all the way to and including the lengthy trial process, staking hundreds of hours of work in the process, otherwise our clients would not see justice – and the meritorious claims of many, many victims of abuse of power by agents of the state would go unheard by the Court. Justice would indeed be blind to their fate.
In effect, the reforms of the UK legal system over the last three decades have outsourced the funding of justice – particularly in the fields of personal injury and actions against the Police – from the State purse (Legal Aid) to the private purses of those solicitors and barristers who have both the confidence to fight these cases, and the competence to not to go out of business in the process! Not only do no win, no fee lawyers such as myself need to have the ability to identify and win meritorious cases – acting as gatekeepers to the justice system who must often bear the brunt of the dissatisfaction of those with unreasonable or fanciful claims – we must also be prepared to operate within the highly unpredictable timescales of litigation, where there is no guarantee when we will be paid (even assuming the case we are championing is successful). Complex legal claims against the Police can run for years, and there is no mechanism for no win, no fee lawyers to receive payments on account – unlike the vast majority of businesses, we cannot impose any ‘deadline’ of guaranteed payment for the work we do.
No win, no fee lawyers have often been derided – largely by those either lucky or wealthy enough not to have to require their services, or by the corporations who end up having to pay their clients’ damages – as ‘ambulance chasers’ and some kind of blight on society.
But in so many cases, without no win, no fee arrangements the doors of Court would effectively remain locked in the faces of individuals who have often suffered horrendous wrongs at the hands of much more powerful groups or institutions, and justice, locked up in an ivory tower, is no justice at all.
I am proud to have been able to fight cases for Sharon and Paul on a no win, no fee basis, and will continue to do so for all cases that I consider meritorious and deserving of the access to justice that they would otherwise be denied.