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A Publicly Funded Christmas Carol

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A Festive Fable

PART ONE

The legal profession was dead, to begin with. Christopher Scrooge signed the burial certificate at the fixed-fee funeral, so there was no doubt about it. It was as dead as a door-nail.

Oh, but he was as mean and grasping an old sinner as ever claimed taxpayers’ money for his Pimlico flat, was old Scrooge, with the suspiciously smooth foreheard and dead-eyed stare of a man to whom the milk of human kindness was but bitter gruel. Children shrank from him, dogs whined and turned away, and even hardened management consultants muttered curses under their breath as he stalked by.

Once upon a time, one blessed Christmas Eve, Scrooge sat busy in his Westminster counting-house, drawing up plans to repeal Magna Carta. His office door was open so that he could keep an eye upon his clerk, Des Cratchit, who sat shivering by a single candle.

The dreary hours skulked by, the sky darkened from lead to iron and the candle flame sputtered and died. With a scowl, Scrooge turned to Cratchit, who cowered before him and hastily pulled on his coat. “You’ll want paying for tomorrow, I suppose?” said Scrooge.

“It is Christmas Day, sir.”

“A poor excuse for picking the taxpayer’s pocket every twenty-fifth of December!” said Scrooge. “I shall have to cut our budget by an arbitrary percentage next year to make up for it.”

The clerk smiled nervously and wished the old miser a merry Christmas.

“Bah Humbug!” said Scrooge. “Merry Christmas! What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.”

The clerk considered a rejoinder, but decided that in the interests of constructive engagement he should surrender abjectly, and shuffled home, hunching his poor thin shoulders against the wind.

Presently, Scrooge followed the example of his pitiable clerk and departed. As Scrooge stalked down the snowy street, glowering at children and muttering to himself, a young man holding a clipboard approached him.

“Good Mr Scrooge, can I trouble you to sign up for a direct debit to Shelter this Christmas?” he asked.

“Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses? Let the idle poor go there!”

“Well, actually, since you outsourced them to G4…” but Scrooge had marched on before the young man could finish his observation.

Scrooge reached his lodgings, shook the snow from his cloak, clad himself in his Thatcher onesie and matching nightcap, and took to his bed.

He awoke some hours later, startled by an extraordinary banging at his bedroom door. The door burst open with a great wrenching noise and, to Scrooge’s inexpressible alarm, a ghostly figure stumbled into the room, wearing a horsehair wig backwards and holding a great set of scales. The figure swayed perilously, dropped its scales and vomited copiously on Scrooge’s bed.

“Terribly sorry about that,” the spirit slurred as it righted itself. “I’ve developed a ruinous fondness for cooking sherry in the afterlife. In any case, it’s only meet and fitting to extend the same courtesies to you as you did me in my lifetime.”

“Who are you?” quavered Scrooge, at last. “What do you want with me?”

“In life, I was the bright-cheeked trainee solicitor, the grizzled Old Bailey hack, the grey-haired judicial grandee. But you chipped away at us, cut by cut, until I was no more. Now I am condemned to walk the earth without rest, filling out an eternal timesheet, unless I can undo the wrongs you did. Three Spirits shall visit you. Expect the first tonight, when the bell tolls one. Expect the second when the clock strikes two. The third shall arrive when the stroke of three has ceased to vibrate.”

“I thought it was supposed to be one a night, not one an hour,” said Scrooge.

“You don’t pay them for waiting time. We’ve had to cut corners,” snapped the spectre and disappeared.

PART TWO

After the Spirit departed, Scrooge lay wakeful in the chilly darkness of his bed but, as the frightful vision faded, his breathing slowed, and a sonorous snoring filled the room. He awoke again with a start as Big Ben chimed on the hour of one.

For one wild, elated moment, Scrooge thought the night’s misadventure had been nothing more than a terrible dream, but then, with a quailing heart, he spied a thin crack of light coming in through the doorway. The crack widened by degrees and a thin figure slipped into the room. The unearthly visitor was a young, pale-faced man, clad in a dark suit and carrying a sheaf of papers, whose face and being gave out a pure, white light.

“Who are you? Are you the Spirit whose coming I was warned of?” Scrooge asked.

“I am the Ghost of Christmas Past.” The ghost’s voice was low, soft and gentle, and Scrooge took heart from it. “You’re not nearly so terrible a spirit as I was expecting,” he said.

“Thanks. I was Runner-Up Barrister Hottie of the Year in 2014. The things those two made me do…Sorry, where was I? Yes. So, off we go, into your past. Come, take my hand and walk with me.”

The ghost took Scrooge’s hand and led him through the streets of London, past Whitehall and down the Strand towards the Temple, where they stopped outside a great stone-fronted building. Sounds of music and merriment came from within and a host of twinkling lights glowed in the windows. “Do you recognise this place?” the spirit asked Scrooge.

“Why, it’s old Fezziwig’s chambers!” cried Scrooge. “I haven’t been here since…” His voice faltered and his face fell, but the ghost beckoned him to follow it, and they slipped into the building.

Inside, the walls were hung with tinsel, candles glowed in alcoves and the strains of ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ filled the air. The most eminent counsel and the lowliest clerk were united in festive celebration; glasses clinked and champagne flowed.

Scrooge and his ghostly companion passed into the next room, where couples danced gaily together. The Spirit led Scrooge to a young woman wearing the black suit and white shirt of a barrister, who stood in the corner of the room talking animatedly to a handsome man. His hair flopped luxuriantly over his forehead and he touched the woman’s arm and leaned close to her as she spoke. On seeing the young woman’s face, Scrooge paled. “Spirit, take me away from this place!” he exclaimed.

“Recognise her? Why, I would know her face if ’twere in a thousand! We were to be married. Dear Spirit, I pray, please let us see a different memory!”

“Very well. Let us visit another Christmas.”

The room dissolved around Scrooge and he found himself in a quiet, cold room, where the same young woman sat with a different man. A much less handsome companion than she had enjoyed at old Fezziwig’s party, he was very tall and rather bald. They were arguing; he angrily, she resignedly.

“It’s no good. I believe in justice, truth and holding the state to account, but all you’re interested in is making cutbacks. We’ve been living on Boots meal deals for months now,” she said.

“But Britain has the most expensive legal aid system in the world! You fat cats have had your noses in the trough for far too long!”

“Oh, everyone knows those figures are highly misleading. Rupert shares my passion for human rights and doesn’t mix his metaphors.”

Scrooge put a hand to his cheek and found it wet with tears. “Spirit!” he cried, “Remove me from this place! Take me home. Why do you delight to torture me?”

“One memory more!” exclaimed the Ghost.

“No more!” begged Scrooge. “No more, I don’t wish to see it. Show me no more!”

But the relentless Ghost took hold of his arms to prevent him escaping and the scene before them changed again; they were now in the Ministry. Scrooge saw his younger self consumed with bitterness, proposing ever more outlandish schemes for cutting legal aid spending, deaf to the warnings of those who prophesied that it would cause terrible injustice. But for all his efforts, Belle and Rupert prospered in their love, while Scrooge became ever more crabbed and embittered.

“Spirit!” said Scrooge, “Show me no more. I cannot bear it!”

The Ghost regarded him with a queer look of compassion in its eyes and nodded. The scene dissolved before him once more; Scrooge was conscious of an irresistible sleepiness; and, further, of being in his own bedroom. He had barely time to stumble to bed, before he sank into a deep, dreamless sleep.

PART THREE

Scrooge awoke again as the great bell chimed the hour of Two. Though no spirit entered his room, he heard the crackling of a fire and a great shout of laughter coming from his parlour, and knew his second unearthly visitor was upon him. He tiptoed from the bedroom and hesitated, uncertain, at the parlour door.

“Come in!” cried the Ghost. “Come in and know me better, man!”

Scrooge stared about him; some sprite had hung boughs of holly around the room; the table was garlanded with delicacies of every description and the scent of mulled wine filled the air. At the far end of the room stood a man in his middle years, rosy-cheeked and round, resplendent in a striped suit and a waistcoat with reindeer printed on it.

“Who are you, Spirit?” Scrooge asked.

“I am the Ghost of Christmas Present,” said the Ghost. “Take my hand; we have much to see.”

Scrooge took the Ghost’s hand and in an instant they were in the street. Not the splendid avenue where Scrooge’s lodgings lay, but a narrow, dingy terrace. Yet, for all that, its aspect was cheerful and gay; men and women called out Christmas greetings to each other as they bustled each to their own dwelling, children laughed and screamed as they played in the snow and couples lingered beneath the mistletoe hung in doorways.

Scrooge saw two men proceeding rather awkwardly towards them; one rather thin and clad in an old coat, the other enormously tall and broad, singing loudly and leaning on the first, who seemed to stumble under his companion’s weight.

“Why, that’s my clerk” exclaimed Scrooge. The Ghost beckoned Scrooge to follow the unfortunate clerk Des Cratchit with him, and they slipped behind the pair as they entered a shabby dwelling.

Inside, all was uproar; Mrs Cratchit and half a dozen small Cratchits were decorating the tree and laying the table and such a noise filled the small house that it was some moments before they realised that Mr Cratchit had returned. Once he had greeted them all enthusiastically and deposited his companion in a chair by the fire (whereupon he began to snore in a great basso profondo), Mr Cratchit turned to his wife.

“What happened to Tiny Tim?” she asked him, anxiety mingling with disapproval.

“I found him in El Vinos, offering his services to passing solicitors for a bottle of whisky plus travel costs. He’s not been the same since they cut the VHCC rates.”

Mrs Scrooge’s face grew dark, but she busied herself with serving up their Christmas Eve feast. All present pronounced it the finest meal they had ever eaten, though Scrooge could not help but notice that every scrap had been consumed, as if none of those eating had feasted quite enough.

The plates being quite licked clean, Mr Cratchit proposed a toast. “A Merry Christmas to us all. God bless us!” he cried, and the family echoed him one and all.

“God bless us every one!” said Tiny Tim, who had awoken, and belched extravagantly.

“Spirit,” said Scrooge, with a sudden foreboding, “tell me what will become of Tiny Tim.”

“I see an insurance company call centre, a specialism in defending whiplash cases and, left in the corner, a slowly disintegrating wig.”

“No!” cried Scrooge. “Oh, no, kind Ghost! Let him be spared!”

“If these shadows remain unaltered, this will be his fate,” returned the Ghost, “What then? What matter if another fat cat must take its nose out of the trough?”

Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words flung back at him so, and was overcome with grief and remorse. But he raised his eyes on hearing his own name, for poor Des Cratchit’s toasting was not yet done.

“Mr Scrooge!” said he. “Here’s to Mr Scrooge, whom we have to thank for this feast!”

“Indeed!” cried Mrs Cratchit, snapping a breadstick menacingly. “I wish I had him here. I’d give him a piece of my mind!”

“My dearest love,” said her husband. “‘It’s Christmas! And you really need to propose a workable alternative to constructive engagement if this criticism is to have any force.”

“You’ve been saying that for years, and look where it’s got us! Sharing one Turkey Twizzler between the nine of us! I’ll drink to him,” said Mrs Cratchit, “since I’ll be needing a drink in any case'”. Tiny Tim hiccupped his assent.

Scrooge’s cheeks blazed in the darkness of that small house, to hear the bitterness in her voice. But before he could turn again to the Spirit, he heard a great bell strike the hour of Three and he found himself once again in the chill air of the street outside. He looked around for the Spirit, but it had departed. Out of the gloom came towards him a tall, thin figure; a grey-haired woman, dressed in black robes and wearing a long white wig. She pointed silently at Scrooge, and then at the street ahead of them, and Scrooge began to follow her, his fear mounting with every step…

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!

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