William Clegg, QC, a leading defence lawyer who has worked on high profile cases for half a century and whose clients have included Prince Andrew, said the profession is under attack from cutbacks and revealed he worried about the fairness of trials in the future.
He said morale in the judiciary was at “an all-time low”, with staff shortages, broken facilities and “a general feeling of squalor”.
Speaking from his chambers, 2 Bedford Row in central London, Mr Clegg said barristers now had to have a private income to be able to operate, which he claims sets back diversity by up to 40 years. Mr Clegg, whose clients have included Barry George and Colin Stagg, paints a worrying picture in his book, Under The Wig, published this week.
He said: “At the moment the profession is in crisis and the court system is in crisis.
“It is unbelievable that if you go to a busy crown court in London you will find lavatories that don’t work, lifts that are broken, carpets that are threadbare, roofs that leak and a general feeling of squalor that is difficult to believe when you are in one of the biggest economies in the world.
“Incredibly, if you go to the Third World and a court there, you find they are often in pristine condition – spotless and there is a great pride in the fact that they are able to keep their courts in an immaculate state. There is none of that in this country.” He said government cuts were to blame, explaining: “The profession has been attacked on all fronts by the Government.
“There is no department which has lost more money by way of a percentage of its turnover than the Lord Chancellor’s Department and the Ministry of Justice. They have been hit the hardest of any departments. As a result morale in the judiciary is at an all-time low.
“There are staff cuts, the effect of which means courts cannot sit because there is nobody to open them.
“I have been in court where we are due to start a trial at 10 o’clock but not been able to start it until 10.30 because there is no usher and no clerk to open the door and let me in because one clerk is having to do two or three courts at the same time. And one usher is having to do two courts.” He said the situation is so bad everyone has become “completely depressed” by the way the court system operates.
Mr Clegg added: “The barristers, the practitioners, have had their fees savaged to a fraction of what they were.
“When I defended Barry George [for the murder of Jill Dando] I was paid approximately half as much Michael Mansfield QC was for defending him in his first trial. If I were to defend him today I would be paid half as much again.
“Barristers are undervalued by the Government and it’s getting to the stage now where despite great strides the profession has made to increase diversity in the profession, the fees are so low that unless you have a private income you can’t afford to be a barrister doing publicly funded work.
“It is setting back diversity 30 or 40 years. You either have to have a private income, family money, or you have to subsidise the publicly funded work with private work. In a chambers like this one a lot of our turnover is from private paying individuals – most of it, in fact. Some will take out a second mortgage to pay for their defence. Some will be covered by insurance, the directors of companies. Sometimes a trade union will pay, sometimes a local authority will pay.
“The fees are set at the market rate and they subsidise the people who work here who just do publicly funded work.
“We couldn’t run this building just on publicly funded work. We would be bankrupt in no time.
“You couldn’t afford to pay the staff, the accountants, the reception, the rent or anything.”
He has some 70 barristers in his “set” with a large part of the work they do funded privately. However, chambers which focus purely on publicly funded work are going out of business. He said: “They can’t afford to operate.
“What’s happening is they are merging to try to reduce overheads. They are trying to cut staff to compress themselves into smaller buildings.”
● Under The Wig, Canbury Press, £16.99
And I know about justice from decades defending evil killers
WILLIAM CLEGG described Rachel Nickell’s killer Robert Napper as “one of the most deranged men I have ever had the misfortune to have to represent”.
Mr Clegg defended Colin Stagg – the man wrongly accused of murdering Rachel – before representing Napper for two unconnected murders some years later. Napper was charged with the killings of Samantha Bissett, 27, and her daughter Jazmine, four, at their home near Plumstead Common, east London, in 1993.
Similar methods had been used against Rachel Nickell, 23, who was stabbed to death in front of her two-year-old son Alex on Wimbledon Common in July 1992. Mr Clegg represented Mr Stagg, who was cleared when the case was dropped after a bungled police investigation.
He then defended Napper for the Bissett killings – and realised he was the likely killer of Rachel. Napper was finally to plead guilty 13 years later.
Mr Clegg said: “Rachel Nickell’s murder, in the presence of her young son, had shocked the nation.
“But Colin Stagg had no evidence against him in the ordinary sense of the word.
“He had been a frequent walker on the common with his dog but that was about it.”
A police sting against Mr Stagg was “clear entrapment”, Mr Clegg said, and the case was dropped at the start of a planned trial. But Mr Clegg said: “The result of that was the real perpetrator was allowed to carry on offending for the best part of another year.
During that time several women were attacked and raped. “
The remarkable coincidence was that after the acquittal of Colin Stagg I was instructed to defend Robert Napper for the murder of Samantha Bissett and her child. “There were obvious similarities between the crimes. In each case a mother was killed in the presence of a young child by a stranger, itself a rare event statistically.
“In both cases the murders took place on, or next to, commonland which was another coincidence.
“Both women victims were young. Both children were young as well. “When I read the papers I remember saying to myself: ‘I bet he’s the person who killed Rachel Nickell’.” Mr Clegg didn’t raise his suspicions with police because Napper was his client, but his hunch proved to be correct because many years later the developments in DNA analysis proved that Napper’s DNA was indeed on Rachel’s body and he pleaded guilty to her killing.
“It is a strange irony. I’ve never known it happen to any other barrister – ever.”