At the CBA meeting I voted in favour of the ‘deal’. At that moment, albeit with reservation and hesitation, I thought that was the right decision for the Young Bar. With the benefit of hindsight I am completely ready to accept I may have been mistaken in that view. Of one thing I am certain and that is I ought to have sought further opportunity for reflection and consultation. The ballot now in action is a belated opportunity for that reflection and consultation to take place. Agreements made at gunpoint are rarely fairly forged.
The way I looked at the ‘deal’ was in terms of a continuum incorporating that which was acceptable, that which was possible and that which was wishful. It seemed to me at the time that the ‘deal’ was acceptable even if it perhaps fell short of what which was possible. The wishful position was clear to me and that was an undertaking by the government to tear up its proposed response to the Legal Aid consultation and to reverse the cuts already implemented.
In explaining my thinking as it was I do not seek to persuade simply to explain my thought processes and to affirm my willingness to listen to the views of those I represent, namely barristers under 10 years’ call, and take account of those others who have justice in their hearts and minds.
There were some obvious questions that came to mind at the time of making the decision: What about VHCCs? Deferment is not withdrawal? What about junior barristers? and What about the solicitors?
To a greater or lesser extent all of these questions are inter-related and I don’t need to be told that the Bar does not exist in a vacuum. What affects solicitors affects us and, to a greater or lesser extent, vice-versa.
In order therefore starting with VHCCs. There is no doubt in my mind that the lion’s share of the credit for the progress that has been made lies at the feet of those who walked away from VHCCs; something that they did before they had any way of knowing what the consequence of their sacrifice would be. Reading the government’s consultation response makes it plain that their unity of action was not anticipated for a second. The undignified efforts that have been made to find representation betray the desperation within the walls of the Ministry of Justice. This has culminated, astonishingly, with the BSB launching a consultation seeking to discipline barristers for refusing to retain briefs following unilateral amendment to their contracts. This consultation has nothing to do with ethics and everything to do with political interference in a supposedly independent regulator.
The reason why I voted to accept the ‘deal’ was that those barristers that considered 30% cuts to VHCCs would, I anticipated, continue to take that view and therefore the representation crisis would continue unabated until market forces dictated a climb down by the government. I saw then and see now that those trailblazing barristers who walked away from their contracts might regard this as scant reward for their efforts but I saw the ‘deal’ as being a stepping stone to the Bar’s ultimate aim.
In answer to the deferment anxiety my view was that the cumulative effect of the Jeffrey Review; Leveson LJ’s efficiency drive and HH Rivlin QC’s criminal justice ‘think tank’ would point out savings far in excess of what AGFS cuts could provide which would obviate the need for the cuts ever to be implemented. Furthermore summer 2015, as hardly needs stating, is beyond the next election date.
In relation to anxieties about the junior Bar I was fully aware that this was and is a very vexed concern. The ‘no returns’ policy is hurting junior barristers; of that there is no question. However I also acknowledge the considerable force in the argument that with solicitors’ firms reduced in number the amount of work available to junior barristers might diminish very dramatically. Set against this I had to weigh up a tangible offer that would allow junior criminal barristers to return to full work now. Heroic sentiments regarding the virtue of death in battle over long term strangulation run the risk of being just that. The young Bar is my constituency and I count myself among its number: its fate is mine also.
In weighing up what was the right course for the young Bar I had to consider what the response of solicitors would be. In candour I had anticipated anger. However I also had a hope which seems to be coming to fruition. There are many actors intimately involved in the proper functioning of the Criminal Justice System. Barristers are perhaps the more high profile part of the CJS but solicitors are the source of almost all of our work and are there at the genesis of almost every criminal case. Solicitors have it as much in their power to bring the government to the negotiating table as the Bar does.
Whenever criminal Legal Aid is subject to negotiation the phrase ‘Divide and Rule’ is not far behind. However the tactics of 19th century warfare and diplomacy are far behind us. Modern battles are fought by guerrillas and in coming to an agreement with barristers only the most short-sighted minister would assume solicitors and, for that matter, probation officers would fall into line. It seemed to me that the Bar could accept the government’s concession and offer what support it could to solicitors seeking to achieve the same through their own actions.
I was asked to cast a vote in my capacity as a member of the CBA executive. That is not to say that I don’t have common cause with solicitors and their aims but before adopting them as my own I must understand them and share them. I don’t support the proliferation of in-house advocacy or the de facto delimiting of client choice of advocate to employees of a firm. I certainly don’t acknowledge any virtue in or justification for the presence of ‘plea only advocates’ in the Crown Court.
This brings me to the question of whether the wishful can also be the possible and if so how it can be achieved. Concerted action by solicitors forces concerted action by the Bar because if the solicitors are not briefing cases then barristers are not working. In that respect I regarded the ‘deal’ as being but one early step in an incremental approach to achieving the aims of all actors within the CJS. A gradual climb down seemed to me to be more realistic than a forced volte-face by the government on its entire programme.
It would appear that in the turbulent aftermath of the CBA’s announcement that solicitors have been galvanised into taking the initiative. Though we all strive for justice it would be naïve to pretend that we do not have different agendas and motives, sometimes they are best achieved through common action and sometimes by allowing others to lead the way.
As I have already said I welcome this ballot; I wish I had the courage and presence of mind at the time to demand it but never has the adage better late than never been called to mind. Unprecedented threats to justice demand hitherto unknown levels of transparency and candour. Direct democracy is unwieldy and unworkable but when treaties are being signed everyone should be entitled to know.
These are my reasons for voting and thinking in the way that I did. Only pride would prevent me from admitting that I may have been mistaken and I urge young barristers or anyone else who cares for justice to tell me if I was: firstname.lastname@example.org