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.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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