Cease Fire – Wasn’t there more to this than the squeezed middle?

Posted: 27/03/2014 in Legal aid

I genuinely never thought that Grayling would agree to a cease fire. And a cease fire which effectively means that when it is up, he won’t be Lord Chancellor anymore.

He won’t be Lord Chancellor because either the ConDemNation will be over.

Or, he’ll have been promoted, I hear Head of Slytherin House is available.

Put down your weapons

You see, we’ve put our weapons down, but nobody has decided the terms of any treaty.

And of course, our main allies, the solicitors are divided, and don’t in truth have the same impact by withdrawing their labour.

Whenever there is a cease fire, people rejoice. But, of course, a cease fire is a temporary measure either before the resumption of war or the finalisation of peace. And whilst some of my colleagues rejoiced today, or were at least happy, I feel, ‘blah’.

I feel ‘blah’ in two respects:

1) What actually a year’s hiatus means

2) I wonder if we missed an opportunity

What a difference a year makes

As said, there’s the obvious likelihood that the Dark Lord Grayling is out of office. He doesn’t have to lose face with fighting the Bar, we don’t take the cuts for a year. Politically it’s a winner on both sides.

And for a number of people at the Criminal Bar it will mean maintaining the status quo. And that status quo will suit a large ‘middle’. The ‘middle’ of Chambers.

For those 11% of the Criminal Bar doing the top end, Very High Cost Cases, they of course find themselves worse off in a year’s time. Those cuts remain in place. However, many of that 11% will have significant income from private client work, part time Judicial Roles and let’s face it – the vast majority of that 11% practiced in the good days, when the Bar were paid by the hour.

As for the 89% of us who don’t do VHCC work. Well, it’s good for the squeezed middle. The classic, grad fee, solid criminal brief, s.18, shorter murders, rapes, is ok. They’re not going to be better off by next year, but, they’re going to have a decent living guaranteed until July 2015.

Thing is, that 89% isn’t all in the same boat. The junior juniors, i.e 5 years call and below, don’t have diaries full of 2 to 4 week sex/serious violence/complex acquisitive offending cases. Heaven forbid, up to about 3 years call (especially in London) you may well be sent back down the Mags on a legal aid brief, and that’s because your instructing solicitor is at the Crown Court doing the jury robbery trial which is the type of case that you rely on.

Magistrates’ Court fees are already next to nothing, what will they be now solicitors’ fees have been cut?

Those who have prison law practices, in advocacy, will find that adjudications are no longer financially viable, and the more complicated parole board hearings? They’ve been cut.

And solicitors’ fees across the board have been cut, if it means finding money elsewhere to keep afloat they will, and if that means keeping more work in house they will.

A year’s hiatus does nothing to deal with ‘plea-only’ advocates.

The one thing that surprised me the most was those ‘pupillage seekers’ on twitter who were rejoicing, it really is not good news for them at all.

And wasn’t there more to all this then protecting the squeezed middle

First, can I say, I am impressed. Impressed that the Criminal Bar mobilised, nationally to protect itself. And getting a truculent Minister to climb down is no small achievement.

But, as much as this whole exercise was about protecting ourselves, it was about protecting the system. That’s certainly why there were corners of the press on our side. Whilst GPs have looked greedy with a 1% pay rise, we’ve looked rather more noble in the face of a potential cut.

Of course, today’s victory will allow hundreds of Barristers to carry on practicing, who wouldn’t have otherwise. That in itself is a very good thing.

But…

The momentum was just starting to build. The first strike we did alone, then we got our instructing solicitors aboard, each strike was in the press. The third strike was looking good, two days, solicitors and combining with probation officers.

And too, other parts of the Bar were starting to come aboard too. Civil legal aid practitioners met to discuss steps toward solidarity, and the Family and PI Bar were starting to talk too.

That was exciting.

Today puts a halt to that momentum and makes some solicitors suspicious. The civil legal aid Bar is too small to have any great impact alone.

So we could have gone further, but if we had, if we have gone beyond protecting our place in the system, it would have been about protecting the system itself.

It would have also been about protecting our profession’s place in the system. Barristers can’t survive if they don’t reproduce. The thought that the only work that Barristers will do in the criminal court is privately paid driving cases and representing celebrities accused of sex offences is shameful.

Perhaps asking a large number of self-employed people, who do a lot of freebies, and greasing of the system’s wheels gratis, it is asking a lot to put things on the line to protect the system.

But, there’s a war still to be fought and that’s simple:

– When are you entitled to Legal Aid.

– And to what standard should you expect to be represented.

FTD

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