Lawyers: why crime doesn’t pay

Lawyers: why crime doesn’t pay

The link between crime and poverty, particularly urban poverty, was established long ago. Anxious about the impact of a ‘criminal class’, the Victorians set about examining the detail of where and how they lived.

A prominent example came with the publication of the London Poverty Maps which were created between 1886 and 1903 by Charles Booth, a maverick businessman and statistician.

His maps catalogued and colour coded every street in the city according to their financial status: from black for ‘lowest class, vicious, semi-criminal’ pink for mixed ‘some comfortable, some poor’ through to red for ‘middle class’ and orange for ‘wealthy’. Available to view online, they present a granular picture of how daily life was determined by location in what was then the largest and most populous city in the world.

Among Britain’s 42 million citizens at the turn of the twentieth century, 6.7 million called London their home. Crime was highest where poverty was greatest. There is no doubt that most Londoners, like urban dwellers in other large British cities, lived in what we would now consider to be dire poverty: housing was unsanitary and overcrowded; diets were poor; disease was common; working conditions were often unsafe and regular employment precariously uncertain.

Against a background of rising crime, the government started to collate information and analyse the data. Between 1900 and 1920, police in England and Wales recorded an average of 90,000 offences a year, a figure which had grown to over 500,000 by 1957, when the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, proclaimed: “Most of our people have never had it so good”. Much of that increase is now considered to be the product of better methods of reporting and recording.

But the real growth in crime is dominated by an even sharper rise in recorded offences during the intervening decades since Macmillan’s speech. In the 1960s, it began to accelerate in earnest, doubling between 1957 and 1967 to over a million crimes a year, before increasing further to reach 2m during the 1970s and 3.5m in the 1980s. During this time, there were multiple changes and additions to the categories of offence and how they were counted. As a result, many more crimes are reported today: for example, the police have to be informed before an insurance claim can be made for a burglary or car theft.

Notwithstanding a glut of new offences, reported crime is now off the scale compared to previous generations. Different categories of offence, as catalogued by the 2018 Crime Survey for England and Wales, include: fraud, 3,348,000; public order – 409,191; theft – 3,591,000; violent offences – 1,275,000; criminal damage and arson – 1,127,000, and computer misuse – 1,121,000 offences. Perhaps most acute in the public consciousness is the resurgence of knife crime, which has fuelled a 14% increase in homicide offences – up from 630 to 719 last year.

The reasons why recorded crime has grown exponentially are varied, complex, and subject to much debate. But on any benchmark, the levels of absolute and relative poverty are now substantially less than they once were. Although some might question the evidence, most people have never had it so good with the vast majority of British citizens immeasurably better off then their Victorian counterparts. The causal link between crime and poverty has therefore become over-simplistic, a fallacy of the single cause: poverty alone is not to blame; other factors also play a part.

Of course, detection and conviction rates for most offences have also improved, producing some remarkable statistics. The UK’s prison population, which was 20,000 in 1900, plateaued between 1920 and 1950 at around the 15,000 mark. Prisoner numbers started to swell in the 1960s and have risen ever since, reaching 92,500 last year. Meanwhile, under a Freedom of Information request in September 2017, the Home Office acknowledged that the number of individuals recorded on the Police National Computer (PNC) ‘containing a criminal record element’ was 11,166,266 – roughly 22% of the UK adult population.

A contemporary sign of the enduring link between crime and poverty can be seen in data shared and published by the Ministry of Justice, the Department for Work and Pensions and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Of the 1.2m Jobseeker’s Allowance claims in England and Wales made under the 2010-15 Coalition government, a third (33%) were made by people who had received at least one caution or conviction between 2000 and 2010.

With such an abundance of potential clients to represent and defend in the courts, all this should be good news for lawyers. And indeed their numbers have expanded just like the number of criminal offences. In 1960, there were 19,069 solicitors with practising certificates. Their ranks have mushroomed in every subsequent decade: 1970 – 25,366; 1980 – 39,795; 1990 – 54,734; 2000 – 82,769; 2010 – 117,862. The latest figures from the Solicitors Regulation Authority show that there are now 143,198 solicitors with practising certificates – a 650% increase in less than 60 years.

But there is a problem. Despite their quantity, the overwhelming majority of young solicitors avoid joining law firms that specialise in criminal work. The reason? Cuts to legal aid have left a dramatic shortage of criminal solicitors, as recently illustrated by data from the Law Society. To illustrate the scale of the problem, they published a national colour-coded map of England & Wales, somewhat reminiscent of Booth’s London.

The map shows that for large swathes of England & Wales, more than half of criminal duty solicitors are over 50. As this increasingly ageing cohort retires, they are not being replaced at the bottom end because so few lawyers are joining the relatively poorly paid branch of the profession. As a result, according to the Law Society, criminal defence solicitors may become extinct in parts of the country within five years.

Very few people would ever accept, let alone contemplate, the idea of lawyer poverty: the term seems to be such an oxymoron. Yet that is exactly what the Law Society map reveals. Between May 2014 and January 2018, the total number of practising solicitors rose by 7.8%, while the proportion specialising in criminal work fell by 9.4%. Faced with pursuing a potential career as a criminal solicitor, an ever growing army of newly qualified lawyers are automatically rejecting the option because the pay is so poor, preferring a corporate, commercial or private client law firm instead. It is an understandable economic choice and no-one can blame them for making it.

Like recorded crime, the reasons for lawyer poverty are varied, complex, and subject to much debate. But some facts are undisputed. As Joe Egan, last year’s Law Society President, said: “Twenty years without any increases in fees, and a series of drastic cuts, have pushed the criminal justice system to the point where lawyers can no longer see a viable career doing this work.”

The Ministry of Justice countered by stating that: “We are clear that we have enough solicitors to fulfil criminal cases and will make sure we continue to do so.” Justice in Victorian Britain was dispensed on the principle that crime doesn’t pay. Intended as a deterrent for nineteenth century criminals, the maxim has an ironic resonance for the young lawyers of today.

Dominic Carman

Written by:

Dominic Carman, journalist, writer and legal commentator.
www.dominiccarman.com