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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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.