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A Publicly Funded Christmas Carol: The competitively-tendered trial of Lord Chancellor Scrooge

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WaitroseLaw returns with the final instalment of her festive fable (you can read the whole fable in one place here)

PART FOUR

The Spirit led Scrooge silently through a tangle of streets that he did not recognise. Scrooge soon lost any idea of where they might have been. At last, the Spirit paused at a forbidding building on a bleak, windswept street. Outside it, groups of disreputable-looking characters stood in clusters, smoking cigarettes.

“What is this place?” asked Scrooge, his voice unsteady. The Spirit made no answer, but inclined her head towards a sign reading ‘Inner London Crown Court’. Recalling the ill-omened retendering of the catering function at that accursed place, Scrooge suppressed an involuntary shudder, but followed the Spirit inside.

The Spirit led him to a dilapidated courtroom. It was altogether ordinary; a dusty, rather small room, where Justice ran its course amid polyester suits and the faint smell of Dettol. Yet where Scrooge had expected to see be-wigged barristers and their note-scribbling instructing solicitors, there were only computer screens. He glanced questioningly at the Spirit, who pointed instead to the dock.

Scrooge followed the Spirit’s gaze and felt a thrill of horror freeze him to the spot. For it was he himself who stood there; stooping, greyed, though still miraculously smooth of forehead. He had no time to contemplate the wreck of his looks, however, for the courtroom was suddenly full of people. Clerks in headsets shuffled in and sat before the computer screens, greeting each other and laughing. A suited man sat in the judge’s seat and brought the room to order.

“Auction number 3200176/Scrooge is about to begin. Ladies and gentlemen, you have ten minutes to submit your bids to represent the convict — oops, sorry, accused — on charges of expenses fraud.”

Immediately, the room filled with voices and the bleeping of screens. Scrooge could not stop himself from shouting, “It was all entirely within the rules! This is a travesty!”, but nobody paid any heed to his protestations.

“50 quid!”

“I’ve got 40 over here!”

“There’s a plumber in Swindon who’ll do it for 30 and sort out the heating in here for free!”

The man in the judge’s seat chuckled. “Deregulation really has been a marvel, hasn’t it? A chap last week managed five guilty pleas and fixed the vending machines, all in one afternoon.”

After a few more minutes of hubbub, the room become quiet once more as the man in the judge’s seat spoke again.

“Sold, to bidder no.008445, webuyanycase.com, for £5.99 plus 10% off the next one. Mr Scrooge, you will have five minutes to confer with your legal advisor before the trial of this matter begins.” An usher handed the elderly Scrooge a mobile phone, which he held unsteadily to his ear. After a few minutes, the judge asked him how he wanted to plead, and he said, a little uncertainly, “Guilty”.

“Where’s my lawyer? Why aren’t they here yet?” Scrooge asked the Spirit, but she simply shook her head and beckoned him to follow her once more. They went down to the cells, where Scrooge saw his older self weeping on a narrow bed as a prison officer took a note of his belongings.

“Spirit, are these things that will be, or that may be?” Scrooge asked the Spirit, terrified. But the remorseless Spirit made no answer. The court building flickered and faded around them and Scrooge found himself in an anonymous-looking office, full of tiny, cheap-looking desks. All were unoccupied, save one. To his horror, Scrooge recognised Tiny Tim, now much older and thinner; rheumy-eyed and grey-whiskered. He opened his desk drawer, took out a whiskey bottle, and took a long, resigned gulp from it, before returning to his pile of papers.

Scrooge felt tears prick his eyes. “Spirit!” he cried, reaching for the Ghost’s arm. “Let this not be so! I swear, I shall heed what I have seen this night! I am not the man I was. Only let me be spared!”

Yet even as he reached to touch the Spirit, he perceived that it was shrinking and changing before his eyes, until it was no more than his own bedpost. Why, and it was his own bed, in his own lodgings; no cheerless prison cell! Scrooge heard the ringing of bells and sounds of cheer from the street below, and realised that it was Christmas Day and that he had been given that most precious of gifts, the chance to make amends.

From that day onward, no man celebrated Christmas as heartily, nor did more to uphold the cause of justice, than Mr Scrooge. Poor Cratchit got a raise, much to the delight of his wife, and was able to buy a real organic turkey for his next Christmas dinner. And, best of all, Tiny Tim was able to stay at the criminal Bar, thanks to a surprise decision to reverse legal aid rate cuts and a well-timed stay at the Priory.

A NOTE TO THE READER

As the observant reader may have realised from the happy ending and sudden change of heart on the part of Lord Chancellor Scrooge, this piece and the characters in it are entirely fictional. In fact, the future of legal aid remains very much in the balance. If you’d like to know more about it, have a look at Justice Alliance, the Criminal Bar Association or any number of equally good sources. Also, Merry Christmas!

The full Publicly Funded Christmas Carol is here.

WaitroseLaw is a lawyer with luscious organic selection, impeccable ethics and dinner party skills. She is not affiliated with or authorised by Waitrose.