Harry Mount's attack on barristers is shot through with personal loathing

These cuts will actually destroy the legal process.

Harry Mount’s scathing article about barristers in the current issue of the Spectator is shot through with a very personal loathing of the profession, which I suspect is accountable for its vitriol. It is also heavily reliant on point-missing observations about how much some top QCs earn, riddled with false generalizations and concludes with distressingly flippant observations about the effects of Chris Grayling’s massive cuts to Legal Aid. I think I might expire of boredom and irritation – an odd combination, I know – if I read one more journalist sounding off about how top barristers earn "too much".

Anyone with the most rudimentary knowledge of what life at the Bar is actually like knows that the profession, especially the criminal Bar, is stuffed with bright young things working twelve hour days for far less than the average graduate starting salary. It is this group – not the established high fliers – who will really feel the devastating impact of Grayling’s funding cuts. These cuts - on which more later - will reduce income and workloads for young barristers, and could stunt the flow of able, ambitious young practitioners up through the ranks of the profession.

The minimum award for Pupillage – the compulsory one year training contract undertaken by newly qualified barristers and which, if his book "My brief Career" is anything to go by, gave Mount one of the worst years of his life - is £12,000, and many chambers don’t raise it much more than that. When you’re made a tenant, you’re essentially self employed, and junior barristers trying to get a practice started can work for weeks if not months before a cheque arrives in the post. And then it’s more likely to be £60 for a hugely stressful and exhausting day in court, rather than £600 for performing the menial, unskilled tasks Mount seems to think most barristers spend their time engaged with.

If you don’t believe me, wander around Temple any day of the week post 5 pm, and gently inquire of the harassed looking young men and women you see scurrying around with boxes of files how they feel about their remuneration. They will give the lie to Mount’s skewered portrayal.

When these fledgling barristers have plugged away for fifteen or twenty years they might, if they are very lucky, get close to earning the enormous sums that Mount talks of. And like anyone who has slogged away to get to the top of their profession, they deserve their financial rewards. It is this select group of barristers, right at the top of their profession, that Mount is actually writing about when he says:

“….[I]t is far from clear why QCs get vastly inflated fees from public funds to pay for Georgian terraced houses, Buckinghamshire country piles and children’s school fees. Barristers still benefit from the gilt-edged perks of the last great unreformed profession (I write as a former barrister). And now they fear that, for the first time in half a millennium, the rule of pampered, flattered lawyers may be coming to an end.”

These lawyers might be flattered by their clients, who may be deeply grateful for their help in traumatic periods of their lives, and esteemed by their peers, who will respect their achievements and know how hard they have worked to obtain their eminence.  And they might live a comfortable lifestyle (although Mount’s sniping remarks about what they choose to spend their money on are entirely irrelevant to his argument): but if either of these are true, they are so because of phenomenally hard work.

Mount is also sloppy in talking of "the Bar" as if it were one homogenous profession when in fact, depending on the area of law in which a barrister practices, the day-to-day work and the skills and abilities they require can differ. But even if that weren’t true, the following assertion is plain false:

"Most things barristers do for hundreds of pounds an hour could be done as well not just by solicitors but by any intelligent person. Many of the things high-street solicitors do, too — conveyancing, divorces and wills among them — are a doddle, especially in the age of the internet."

Mount favours dissolution of the distinction between solicitors and barristers, pointing to the fact that, after the 1990 Rights of Audience Act, solicitors can address judges in certain courts and perform their own advocacy.  And many solicitors are excellent advocates. But because barristers are specially trained advocates, and solicitors are not, for the most part there is a substantial discrepancy in their oral abilities.

During my time at Spear’s, I have spoken to many in the legal profession who say that solicitor-advocates – with some exceptions, of course – are just not as good in court as barristers. No doubt Mount would leap in here and say that of course millionaire QCs, with their hugely inflated sense of self-importance and ingrained God-complexes, would argue thus – but they have not all been QCs. Indeed, they are not all even barristers. Leading solicitors in different areas of law have told me that they would far rather instruct a barrister than a solicitor-advocate if a case goes to court.

This is not only because of barristers’ oral abilities. Even the best solicitor advocates will not be in court day in, day out, and so they will lack the nuanced understanding of how particular courts and particular judges work. This knowledge the barrister has, and it can be crucial in effective representation.

Mount destroys his own argument here in any case by talking of ‘high street solicitors’ rather than barristers. I would not be so arrogant as to claim detailed knowledge of what these professionals do on a day to day basis, but I’m sure it’s not a "doddle."

To claim that what all high street solicitors do, and what all barristers do, could be done by anyone with a brain, but with no legal – or perhaps even formal – education is absurd. Unless the circles in which Mount moves are populated with people who have just acquired, as if by some magical process of intellectual osmosis, a thorough grasp of the law, of advocacy techniques, of professional codes of conduct of client handling skills....The list of specialist knowledge – which takes years of work and study to acquire, and which clients pay for – goes on. 

By far the most distressing aspect of Mount’s diatribe, however, is his stance on Chris Grayling’s proposed cuts to public funding for the Bar. Introducing the Justice Secretary, Mount points out that Grayling is the ‘first non-lawyer to be made Lord Chancellor since the 17th century’. Grayling’s complete lack of legal background – he worked at the BBC and Channel 4 and as a management consultant before being elected to parliament – is worrying enough in itself, but Mount doesn’t seem concerned about that, possibly because he thinks it’s a job ‘any intelligent person’ could do. He introduces Grayling’s proposed legal aid cuts in such a way that you’d be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about:

‘[H]e has simply said he wants to make some savings in the legal aid bill. To the lawyers, unaccustomed to having their privileges and subsidies challenged by anyone, this means war.’

Because Mount is so caught up with slamming barristers in his piece, he cannot focus on the real reason these cuts are being so hotly fought against – not just by barristers, but by the general public too.

I would, of course, not wish to disagree that some, perhaps many lawyers, are in part angry because they will earn less money at the publicly funded Bar than they have been doing – which, to make the point again, will not be as much as Mount casually implies it is. But if so, what is wrong with that? Why shouldn’t they fight that? They’d better stop ‘wasting’ money on buying nice houses and privately educating their children.

The truth is, though, that they are fighting the cuts because they are committed to the justice system in this country, and they know – better than anyone – the effect those cuts will have on those seeking representation in court. Mount is breathtakingly flippant when he says Graying "just wants to make some savings." The extent of those savings? A proposed £220m to the legal aid bill.

In The Times on Thursday, Alastair MacDonald QC explained why barristers are opposing these cuts, and it is because they are worried that miscarriages of justice will abound. This, argues MacDonald, is an unavoidable consequence of clients not having access to suitable representation.

Of the changes Grayling proposes, the one of which everyone should be scared is the Price Competitive Tendering model. According to this, the Government will allocate chunks of the publicly available money to a certain number of law firms in each region of the country. When a defendant in that area requires legal representation, the job will go to the firm with the available funds, rather than the firm with expertise in the relevant area of law.

You really don’t need a law degree to see what a dreadful and hugely unfair model that is. These firms, paid whether they win or lose, will be under pressure to turn the case around as quickly as possible, and thus it will be in their interests to push for guilty pleas regardless of whether that is right for the defendant or not. And defendants – normal people, people who have made a mistake and need a voice in court – will be assigned to the first available barrister, whether he or she practices the relevant area of law or not.

But far, far worse for defendants is the fact that, if Grayling’s PCT model is pushed through, prosecuting barristers will be picked from a specialist group with expertise in the relevant area of law. So if you find yourself in court, you will not be able to pick your barrister, and might end up with a relatively inexperienced advocate unused to practicing the law you need him or her to know thoroughly, instinctively. But you can be sure that the barrister on the other side will be an expert, and will put the case against you as well as it can be put. Is that fair?

How anyone  - whether a lawyer or not – can possibly think that is anything other than deeply worrying, and to be opposed as vigorously as possible in the interests of justice, is staggering. But Mount either doesn’t care, or is too mired in his very personal loathing of barristers to notice.

This article also appeared in Spear's magazine.

Photograph: Getty Images

Mark Nayler is a senior researcher at Spear's magazine.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.