Weekly round-up 13 – 17 January

justice2Grayling: the cuts are ‘writ in stone’: The Chairman of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA), Nigel Lithman QC, met with justice secretary, Chris Grayling, this week.  According to Lithman, Grayling ‘insists the cuts are writ in stone.’ In a brief summary of his meeting with Grayling, the CBA chairman said: ‘My message to the Lord Chancellor: stop misinformation. My policy: Help find the savings and engage regularly and meaningfully. My personal view: continue to refuse to do work at reduced rates.’  Grayling’s commitment to the cuts caused a stir on Twitter, with a number of criminal barristers and solicitors calling for another day of strike action in protest at the proposals.  Garden Court North’s head of chambers, Mark George QC, who led the call for the first mass walk-out, tweeted: ‘Please let’s hear the date for a full day or days of action. If Grayling’s cuts are written in stone then let’s dig up those stones. No more cuts to legal aid.’ Others, including Doughty Street Chambers’ Francis Fitzgibbon QC, queried the purpose of the government’s Transforming Legal Aid consultation if Grayling’s mind is already made up. ‘That is an interesting observation,’ tweeted criminal solicitor advocate Julian Young. ‘Why consult if legal aid cuts are already set in stone?’

Barristers’ income hot topic of the week: Two prominent silks wrote letters to The Times  this week, disputing a number of Shailesh Vara MP’s fundamental assertions about legal aid.  Christopher Mccall QC said: ‘The statement by the Legal Aid Minister that it is “nonsense” that barristers’ take home pay is lower than the fee income paid cannot go unchallenged. I can speak only for myself but in my last tax year my overheads were some 23 per cent of the fees charged. And being self employed I do not have the sick pay or holiday pay privileges that the Legal Aid Minister enjoys.’  Chairman of the CBA Nigel Lithman QC said: ‘The figure [cited by the Legal Aid Minister] of £84,000 per year as barristers’ earnings was untrue. The fact we are the most expensive legal aid system in Europe is untrue. In response the Legal Aid Minister says “we have engaged constructively with lawyers for months”. The Legal Aid Minister has never contacted me or my administrator since he took office.’  Members of the public were less sympathetic to the plight of the criminal bar, however, as Mike O’Malley said simply: ‘Does the chairman of the CBA really expect us to believe the average earnings of the average barrister are less than those of a bus driver?’

LAA defers introduction of online working:  The Legal Aid Agency (LAA) is deferring the start of the expansion of its new digital system for civil cases, known as the Client and Cost Management System (CCMS), it announced this week.  A message on the Ministry of Justice website said: ‘Whilst much progress has been made, we have listened to feedback from users during the pilot phase, and their representative bodies, and want to make some technical improvements before we start large-scale transition to the new system.’  According to the MoJ, over 3,000 applications have already been successfully processed electronically using CCMS during the system’s pilot phase. ‘We will continue to engage with legal aid providers and counsel already using CCMS and their representative bodies,’ said the MoJ. The LAA plans to retain the transitional period of three months so that ‘providers and counsel are able to familiarise themselves with the system before it becomes mandatory.’

Justice Minister: ‘Legal profession must do more to reflect modern Britain’: Law firms should ‘proactively go out and look for people from all communities in Britain to be lawyers’, Simon Hughes MP told The Independent this week.  In his first interview since being appointed to replace Lord McNally as justice minister, Hughes said: ‘The law is by definition part of the establishment of the country and the establishment should look like modern Britain, not look like early 20th century or late 19th century Britain.’  According to the Independent, just five of the 148 senior level judges in England and Wales are from an ethnic minority background, while only one of the 12 Supreme Court justices is a woman. The most recent figures showed that more than one-third of pupil barristers went to either Oxford or Cambridge, a proportion that is rising. ‘We still have a legal profession which is significantly dominated by white, middle-aged men,’ said the Lib Dem deputy leader. ‘There are almost no women at the top end of the judicial system and very little ethnic diversity throughout the judicial system.’ Hughes said that the justice secretary, Chris Grayling, supports his initiative for law firms and chambers to cast their nets more widely when recruiting. ‘It may be there’s an additional bit of financial help you need to give to encourage people from poor backgrounds to come into the legal profession at the bottom end,’ he said.

‘Life at the criminal bar is a constant struggle’: A junior criminal barrister responded to Simon Hughes’ call for greater diversity in the legal profession, arguing that the legal aid reforms will mean that ‘those from less privileged backgrounds, like myself, will have to find another career’.  Eleanor Hutchinson, ‘state-school educated and from a single-parent family’ said: ‘I became a legal aid criminal barrister because I was committed to representing those who could not afford to pay for a lawyer. I had to take out a loan to pay for my legal education. I knew this was a risk because I was not going to become a well-paid commercial lawyer, but I was prepared to take that risk because justice for all matters to me.’ She continued: ‘Even though I have a very busy practice, it has been a constant struggle: I work extremely long hours; I sometimes earn as little as £50 per day; I struggle to pay my rent and expenses each month, and I remain in debt.’ Referring to the justice minister’s vision of those from ‘poorer backgrounds’ considering a career in law, she said: ‘If the Government cuts legal aid fees any further I will not be able to sustain myself….However, it is my clients I am most concerned about. I will be able to get another job, but they may not be able to get another lawyer.’

 

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