Judge Rob Rinder and Jeremy Brier on the Importance of Legal Aid

Chancery Lane Chats

14-12-2021 • 44 mins

Jeremy is a leading Senior Junior at the Commercial Bar and is a member of Essex Court Chambers. He specialises in complex and heavy commercial litigation, including insurance, banking and funds, all aspects of commercial fraud, shipping, and international arbitration. In 2020, Jeremy was the lead Junior for Arch in Financial Conduct Authority v Arch, the test case on business interruption losses resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic. Since 2018, he has also sat as a Recorder of the Crown Court.

Rob was called to the Bar in 2001 and went on to specialise in cases involving international fraud, money laundering and other forms of financial crime. Since 2014, he has been the eponymous judge in the reality courtroom series Judge Rinder and has also written a legal based discussion column in The Sun. He also came fifth in the fourteenth series of Strictly Come Dancing.

Jeremy and Rob's experiences as judges

From a young age, Jeremy had always wanted to be a criminal barrister, and when he’d accrued enough experience as a commercial barrister, he applied, and was appointed, as a part-time judge - known as a recorder.

“And then you learn on the job. You get training, you do get very good training, actually. But you also have to go and do a lot of sitting in with all the judges, quite a lot of observing and watching.”

While you don't always see the impact the criminal Legal Aid cuts are having on the front line in the court, says Jeremy, what is being seen is a rise in the number of people who are representing themselves. The issue with this is they simply don’t understand the law procedure in the way that trained counsel do.

The importance of Legal Aid

Legal Aid, says Jeremy, has always been a problematic area for the government. They haven’t been able to sell it to the public because people tend to see it as footing the bill for criminals. But Legal Aid isn’t just for crime. It’s vital in areas like immigration and asylum cases.

“Legal Aid is actually incredibly important, indeed, fundamental to a democratic and functioning legal system under the rule of law.”

When the Legal Aid and Advice Act came in 1949, about 80% of the country was covered. That has subsequently dropped to about 27% of people who were eligible by 2007. And now, under the latest reforms, there are only very small numbers of specific cases that can get funding.

But, says Rob, Legal Aid represents everything.

“It's about access to justice, without access to justice, there is no rule of law. And without the rule of law, our democracy is meaningless, simple as. But what governments have failed to do, or even us as lawyers, is to personalise it to give really good quality examples of how critical and how important it is, and to make it relevant to individuals.”

And Rob has had significant first hand experience of people who desperately need Legal Aid, but for whom access to justice is completely beyond their grasp. The problem, says Rob, is that one - we have access to legal advice because we have money to pay for it as well the connections to help. Two -  we can speak to power without fear. And three - we have the capacity and the resources to ensure that the law is executed on our behalf. That in itself is a privilege.

“And for millions of our neighbours, even in the communities we all live in. That's just not part of their reach. And when we sit back and reflect on who we are as a nation, that's not just a problem. It says something deeply worrying about our nation.”

The misunderstanding of Legal Aid

I think one of the reasons, historically, is that for some reason, Legal Aid has been synonymous in the public mind, whether through the reporting of it or otherwise, as being some sort of fund for criminals.”

There’s a misunderstanding that what's happening is that all of these undeserving murderers, rapists, and thieves are somehow dipping into the public purse to employ clever barristers to get them off crimes. And that couldn't be further from the truth.

First of all, says Jeremy, an incredible number of people are innocent of the crimes or wrongdoings they’re accused of. And that's possibly the most important protection of liberty we have as a civilised society - to give innocent people the right to defend themselves. But also, everyone is entitled to a defence. And that is a fundamental right, just like access to the NHS or the education system.

How to improve the image of Legal Aid

Cameras in court would in no way shape or form help the public understand the significance of Legal Aid, says Rob.

“Look, we're lawyers and we know something which the public doesn't, which is most court cases, even criminal ones are incredibly boring.”

What we need to do, Rob continues, as a legal community, is think about ways to broaden our capacity and reach into communities that don’t have access to justice.

“We need to think of more corporately creative ways about how we are privileged with time, to ensure that we reach more people that would otherwise not have access to our quality advice. And one of the things that I've been thinking about, is [for lawyers to] give a certain percentage of time to Legal Aid work or to pro bono work.”

Also, says Jeremy, look outside of the immediate cases that you are working on and remember you are part of a bigger justice system.

Discussed in this podcast episode:

  • Rob and Jeremy's experiences as judges
  • The importance of Legal Aid
  • Public misunderstandings about the Legal Aid system
  • How lawyers can help improve the image of Legal Aid