Bar Chairman: ‘Still much to fight for and it’s worth the fight’

BYEEBD8CcAAkhNMThe Bar must ‘jealously guard and preserve’ its values of ‘integrity, excellence and independence’ said Maura McGowan QC to a packed Annual Bar Conference on Saturday.

Delivering a defiant keynote speech, the Chairman of the Bar Council (pictured left) criticised the ‘contemptuous disregard’ with which the publicly-funded Bar is held by the Lord Chancellor and certain sections of the press – often engendered, she said, by ‘a total inability to refer to any barrister without using the lazy and inaccurate epithet “fat cat”.’  ‘We do not hack the phones of others to sell our services,’ said the criminal silk.

Whilst relieved that the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has abandoned its plans to introduce Price Competitive Tendering (PCT) into criminal legal aid, McGowan warned the conference: ‘But the MoJ cannot go on pretending that there will be no damage to the public good by the cuts it has, and continues, to make. Nor that the profession will survive these cuts undamaged.’

Urging the profession not to give up without a fight, McGowan concluded: ‘Our commitment to serve the public has not faltered. We have to continue to fight for the recognition and respect we deserve.’

Dilution of quality
Barrister and cross-bench peer Lord Pannick QC (pictured below right) echoed the pugnacious sentiments of the Bar Chairman, as he called on attendees at the conference to ‘resist’ government proposals which, he argued, ‘will limit the Bar’s important contribution to the rule of law.’ Responding to the justice secretary, Chris Grayling’s plans to reduce fees for criminal legal aid, Pannick said: ‘If the Government seeks to administer our legal system on the cheapest basis possible, it will inevitably dilute and pollute its quality for the future.’

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Referring to Grayling’s recent Daily Mail article, in which he declared judicial review to be a ‘promotional tool for countless Left-wing campaigners’, Pannick denounced the justice secretary’s proposals to restrict the scrutiny mechanism, ‘because they are based on partisan and ill-informed slogans.’ He continued:

‘Any attempt by government itself, the defendant in so many of these cases, to restrict the efficacy of judicial review must be very carefully scrutinised to ensure that the changes are being proposed in the public interest and not in the interest of Ministers and their supporters.’

Iron fist
Chairman of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) Nigel Lithman QC applauded the Attorney General Dominic Grieve for ‘entering the lion’s den’ and representing the government’s view on the cuts at a break-out session on the future of the criminal Bar.

Opening the session, Lithman said bluntly: ‘There is a horror story unravelling before us… the government is killing our profession.’  Describing the CBA as ‘the iron fist within the Bar Council’s velvet gloves’ he added that the Bar is ‘united’ and ‘will not go quietly.’

Grieve responded that he ‘understood the fears and frustrations’ expressed by the CBA but that ‘in the current financial climate, we cannot ignore that legal aid is a substantial budget item that is going to continue to come under scrutiny.’

Warning the criminal Bar against returning instructions in very high costs cases (VHCC) – the fees for which will be cut by 30% from next April – Grieve said that the disruption caused to the courts may well ‘bring about the changes you desire’, but added that it also ‘carries the very serious risk that within government there will be a view that people should look elsewhere for the service to be provided.’

Too many barristers
Grieve (pictured below) went on to argue that there are more barristers practising than ‘the market can sustain’ and that the criminal Bar ‘needs to be at a size where it can thrive – enough barristers for competition, but enough work for them to have an acceptable standard of living.’

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The Attorney General’s viewpoint was invariably shot down by members of the criminal Bar on the panel and in the audience, with former CBA Chairman Tony Cross QC asking him bluntly: ‘Will the fee cuts attract the best and the brightest to the criminal Bar in the future?’ Grieve was equally forthright in his response: ‘no’. He added: ‘There is a serious issue of whether the bar will be attractive.’

Looking to the future
Closing the conference, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas warned the profession that, in order to maintain the reputation of the legal system in England and Wales, ‘the Bar is, or should be, one cohesive profession.’

Arguing that the Bar should be more united across the country, the Lord Chief Justice said:

‘Just as our system must provide the same justice out of London as it does in London, our system must provide justice irrespective of whether the advocate is privately or publicly funded. It must now do so in circumstances which result from what has been described as the retreat or the retrenchment of the State.’ 

Noting the ‘very marked difference in income’ between those in the privately funded sector and the publicly funded sector, the country’s most senior judge said: ‘It is essential for the cohesion of a legal profession…that those in the one part which is so prosperous understand the importance of maintaining cohesion and take active steps to that end, given the consequences of what many perceive as the retrenchment of the state.’

Thanks to Ben Denison for the photos.

 

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