Saturday, August 23, 2008

Glasgow Bar Association paid PR firm to hit legal aid proposals

More skulduggery from the Glasgow Bar Association, who along with elements of the Law Society of Scotland, used Public Relations firms to attack legal aid reforms aimed at cutting public money for wider access to justice.

For those who are interested .. the Justice Secretary knew all about it of course .. as did the Law Society … shock, horror !

The Sunday Herald reports :

Lawyers paid PR firm to attack reforms which cut legal aid income

Scare stories about new system were placed by media company

By Paul Hutcheon, Scottish Political Editor

AT FIRST sight, the recent media coverage about how new criminal justice reforms were allowing yobs to walk away from their crimes with a fine seemed only to be a reflection of public concerns.

The last Scottish Executive's summary justice proposals, which came into force on March 10, were intended to speed up the system by keeping low-level criminals out of court and instead punishing them with either a fine or a warning.

In practice, "reform" was allowing people charged with assault to get away with a £150 fine, a sanction which was bizarrely applied to two women who attacked a nurse with a glass.

The result was a plethora of stories about "soft touch" Scotland and a barrage of criticism for the SNP government and prosecutors.

However, the Sunday Herald can reveal that much of the coverage was being driven by the Glasgow Bar Association (GBA) - a body representing the legal profession in the west of Scotland - which had hired a PR firm, McGarvie Morrison Media (MMM), to attack a key plank of the criminal justice system.

A consequence of the fiscal fines system, otherwise known as "diversion", is that people charged with low-level crimes need not get bogged down in drawn-out court cases, thus depriving lawyers of legal aid.

Statistics from the Scottish Legal Aid Board show how lucrative state cash is for law firms. In 2006-2007, firms received £122 million for work done.

In other words, Glasgow's legal establishment has been bankrolling a secret campaign to attack a set of reforms that will reduce the subsidies for wealthy law firms.

A leaked letter from last month between two solicitors makes clear MMM's remit to mount a campaign against a set of reforms that had widespread cross-party support at the time.

"As you will probably know, they GBA have employed media consultants who have basically commenced a campaign through the Scottish Sun regarding diversion being used in serious cases rather than prosecuting somebody in court. The consultants are looking for any cases where it would appear that diversion has been used for something more serious than it should have."

The letter continued: "Apparently the consultants are offering discretion and confidentiality and if any member has such a case they want to report to them they should send an email to"

The email address was for John Morrison, a founding director of MMM, which for the last two months has placed stories and trawled for negative diversion cases on behalf of their well-paid clients.

MMM, a Labour-supporting PR firm which donated £2000 to the party last year, lists a number of its clients on its website, but not the GBA.

But the blurb on its site states: "We deploy our experiences, skills and contacts to ensure that MMM campaigns make headlines and achieve results."

The firm's "discreet" strategy appears to have had one central plank: find bad examples of diversion and hand them to the media. It is a tactic that has certainly made headlines.

A raft of articles in broadsheet and tabloid newspapers have focused on individual cases of diversion, which were accompanied by either statistics or obliging quotes from a member of the GBA.

In one July report, published in The Sun, GBA past president Gerard Considine was quoted on the summary reforms: "I can't see how this is about protecting the public from harm."

In an earlier article in the same newspaper, Considine had another criticism of the system: "This is undermining the credibility of the justice system."

Sara Matheson, the current president of the GBA, also hit out at the new regime. "This is a matter that should concern the general public," she said.

Another piece, in The Sunday Times in June, reported how lawyers had "compiled a dossier" of cases in which serious crimes had been "downgraded" to free up court time.

This time, Edinburgh Bar Association president Kenneth Cloggie popped up with a quote: "It seems to be a bit of a lottery depending on the fiscal you get on the day."

Cloggie's email address was also listed in a fax obtained by the Sunday Herald as the contact for suitable examples of "direct measures", such as fiscal fines, for use in a BBC programme on the matter.

Morrison said of MMM's work: "Our company was recently appointed as short-term media advisers to the Glasgow Bar Association. There has been intense press and media interest in issues linked to summary justice reform and the use of fiscal fines. The GBA asked MMM to provide advice on how best to deal with inquiries from journalists and to help promote their point of view."

He added: "The GBA have consistently argued that fiscal fines are not in the public interest, because some offenders who are guilty of violent and other serious offences are not being convicted through the courts and escape without a criminal record."

Matheson defended the GBA hiring the PR firm. "The overwhelming motivation was to have some assistance with the press. They are helping us with all aspects of getting our message across," she said. "Our members are gravely concerned about diversion and the effect it will have on the public."

On whether the legal aid aspect of the summary justice reforms was part of the reason for hiring MMM, she said: "That's certainly one aspect, but it's not the only driving force."

Justice secretary Kenny MacAskill MSP, who concedes that there are problems with the system, said: "I regret that the Glasgow Bar Association have paid lobbyists in order to trawl around for mistakes. It doesn't serve them well.

"We want to reward lawyers for doing their job, not have people playing the system. Unfortunately, it does seem that a small minority of lawyers want to persist in milking the system.

"The two-month media blitz on the summary justice reforms, far from being a bottom-up process reflecting public anxiety, appears to have been a campaign manufactured by a PR company and paid for by a legal establishment that has a financial interest in resisting the new system."

No comments: