The myth of "fat cat" barristers

Criminal barristers threaten to strike over cuts to legal aid fees.

Max Hill QC, Chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, will give a speech this evening hitting out at the government's cuts to the legal aid budget and barristers fees, arguing “the criminal justice system is at risk because barristers’ role within it is becoming increasingly less viable”. He will threaten the government with industrial action by barristers – although this is unlikely to happen without further discussion with the association's 3,500 members.

The results of a survey of CBA members show that 89 per cent would be willing to take direct lawful action, such as refusal to attend court. The majority of respondents had experienced delays in payment from the Legal Services Commission.

This is fighting talk. For many people, the idea of barristers going on strike will seem absurd. The government's cuts to the legal aid bill have been presented as necessary to prevent "fat cat" lawyers running off with vast sums of government money. It's a familiar story. However, quite apart from the effect that the legal aid cuts will have on numerous people who find themselves unable to get legal aid support in their divorce or domestic violence cases, the separate cuts to legal aid fees may well push many barristers into bankruptcy. Fees were cut by 13.5 per cent by the Labour government, and a further 11 per cent by the current government.

Max Hill says that when he took over the role of Chairman in 2010, he was ready for the challenges presented by a recession and ongoing economic uncertainty:

But I did not know that there would be such heartache, depression and personal bankruptcy caused by the wanton failure of central government to shore up the Legal Services Commission in such a way that they might pay us in reasonable time for concluded cases.

I did not know that criminal barristers would email, ring or meet me to tell how they couldn’t pay their tax in January.

This comes as no surprise to me. Magistrates' court work, which forms the majority of legal aid cases, is extremely badly paid. Barristers, who are often pupils or young junior barristers, get paid around £50 per appearance, which is the legal aid fee. The disorganised state of most courts means that they are kept waiting around all day for the case to come up, so they can't usually do more than two cases per day, if that.

Solicitors receive the money, and it is their job to pass it on to the barrister. Unfortunately, this doesn't happen quite so straightforwardly as it might seem. Delays are commonplace, and non-payment happens far more often than you'd expect. Barristers are self employed, so if there's no work, there's no money, and if there's no money, there's no job security to see them through. Out of this money, barristers must pay chambers rent, often as much or more than 14 per cent of each £50 payment.

The legal aid bill is predicated on the assumption that people who don't get legal aid should be able to represent themselves in court. It's not surprising that this government thinks that several years of training, bar school, and practise are expendable. But it's a fallacy, as we would soon discover if the barristers did go on strike -- something that would be totally without precedent. Courts that did open would be chaotic, the waits longer than ever, with people desperately trying to fight their cases with no knowledge of the law. Miscarriages of justice would be par for the course. I suspect we would soon discover that legal aid is worth investing in.

Tim Kevan, writer of the BabyBarista novels and columnist for the Guardian, tells me:

If legal aid work pays significantly less than other areas, it is likely in the long run to discourage away the best candidates. This undermines one of our most precious and basic rights: that of the state guaranteeing to all, regardless of means, the right to a fair trial.

This appears to be just what is happening.

Barristers should have just as much right to strike as any other group if they are being wronged. As Hill says, “the time has come to bypass our political masters. If they won’t listen to us, let us go to the public, because that is where governments are vulnerable. Our causes are just.

“In all things, I say we should do what we do so well in court already, every day. Fight without fear or favour.”

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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.