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.”

Photograph: Getty Images

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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