Friday 3 January 2014

Justice's blindfold slips

In the morning of Monday 6th January 2014 Justice’s blindfold will slip from her eyes and gag her mouth.  Courts up and down the land will fall silent in an unprecedented display of unity by barristers.  It is an action that provokes sadness and dismay within the ranks of the Bar offending, as it does, against the core ethos of the Bar that justice must be done.  That it has come to this seems to some incredible.

The Government, in the form of our Lord Chancellor, Chris Grayling MP (entitled to an annual emolument of £227,736 and an annual pension of £106,868) and his Ministry of Justice would have you believe that this walkout is the desperate action of ‘fat cat’ lawyers intent on fleecing ‘hardworking taxpayers’ by clinging aboard the ‘legal aid gravy train’. If you believe this then you are deceived.

The reality is that the criminal Bar is in crisis. Chambers cannot afford to recruit pupil barristers and even the vanishingly few that make it through the net are finding that they have joined a profession where they have little hope of paying off the mountainous debts accumulated in study and qualification.

To the thoughtless we are leeches and parasites coercing criminals into pleading not guilty simply to line our pockets.  There are those within the ranks of the Bar who feel that we have been naïve in failing to communicate our ‘brand’ to the media, politicians and the public.  However it seems preposterous to suggest that doctors should have to pay publicists to explain why curing children of cancer is important or that firemen should employ PR companies to spread the message that extinguishing fires is in the public good.  So it should be for what we work at every day.

When young barristers are called to the Bar they join a profession that is a vocation: it is not just a job. There is no mission statement for barristers beyond pursuing the ends of justice.  There are no key performance indicators beyond right being done.  If it sounds fogishly high minded for our cut price, cynical times that may be but when your daughter’s rapist is in the dock you want a prosecutor of integrity, intellect and determination.  Equally when your son is wrongly prosecuted for defending himself in the street you want him defended by a fearless advocate intent on holding the state to account; not an amateur preoccupied by impossible mortgage repayments and debts.

Fairness is a paradox because you can’t see it but you also can’t feel its absence too much.  Almost the first thing children learn as toddlers is the expression ‘It’s not fair.’  Barristers strive at and for fairness.  This country has a proud tradition of abhorrence for institutional injustice.  Consider the media reaction, and your own, to the Birmingham Six, the Hillsborough cover up and the Mid Staffordshire hospital failings.  Barristers were and are instrumental in exposing that kind of injustice.

Criminal barristers do not demand or expect riches for the work they do but they do demand to be paid properly for difficult, sensitive and often extremely stressful work.  If professionals are not paid fairly for their work their work will not be performed professionally.  Soon after there will be no professionals to perform that work.  Justice, society and you cannot afford for that to happen and that is why the wheels of justice will stop turning on Monday morning.

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