Last May over a thousand members of the profession attended a meeting in London to show just how angry they were at the Ministry of Justice proposals to “reform” legal aid. At the time I described the proposals as an extinction event for my side of the profession with the prospect of 1300 firms being wiped out overnight, and the position was very little better for the Bar. Access to justice was seriously threatened, the prospect of legal aid becoming the domain of Tesco Law, Stobarts and the like seemed very real.
I recall going into that meeting thinking that there was very little hope of a sucessful outcome; successive governments had slowly and deliberately reduced the legal aid provision, cut our rates of renumeration and sought to introduce increasingly burdensome layers of bureaucracy. The Lord Chancellor was clearly a man on a mission. A man with a serious agenda and a considerable degree of political ambition. His previous consultations had been very little more than a fig leaf of respectability, pressing ahead with what he deemed was necessary change and there was nothing to suggest this one was anything but the same.
Yet, I came out of that meeting thinking that perhaps there was a chance we could stand up to this. Throughout that meeting there had been applause, cheering, shouts of encouragement and standing ovations. There had been a sense of purpose, fire in bellies and a desire to give the other guy a bloody nose.
Above all there was unity. A sense of purpose that was shared between both sides of the profession, we had , and still have, a common goal to ensure access to justice and to save legal aid for those we needed it the most.
The meeting took place at Friends House, the name of the venue becoming more appropriate as the afternoon wore on, and perhaps even more so over the past year. There has been a surprising degree of unity amongst the two sides of the profession, with both sides understanding and perhaps enjoying the symbiotic relationship we have with each other.
We refer to each other as “My friend” or “My learned friend”, and this is important to remember. We are not enemies, we all want to preserve the system of justice we work in, for ourselves, for our friends, for our clients and our future clients. Our objections were once described as “pay negotiations by parties with vested interests”. The great strength of what we have done together and what we have achieved is that if we are honest with ourselves there was a degree of truth to that statement, our opposition was never just about that.
The statement from the CBA yesterday has been received with mixed emotions across the profession. The rank and file believe that they have been sold out, and that a delay in cuts is just a suspended sentence that will inevitably by enacted. Solicitors believe that the Bar have stabbed them in the back and cooked up a deal to sacrifice us to the Ministry of Justice.
My personal view doesn’t really matter, but I think the decision taken was short sighted and may well come back to haunt the CBA. That said, reality as we all know is about making stark choices, about making difficult choices and no one decision will please everyone. The very fact that The Lord Chancellor came to the table after a steadfast refusal to accept that there was anything else to be done is telling, he was, perhaps is, desperate not to be given that bloody nose. Rightl or wrong the Bar has a period of grace to further argue their cause, let us hope that there will still be solicitors left after the pause to brief the barristers the CBA were keen to protect.
One thing remains the same this morning as it did yesterday. I oppose the cuts and reforms to legal aid for all the reasons I have set out over the past year, my friends feel the same, as do my learned friends. We still need each other and whilst our position may have been compromised, nothing the Law Society or the CBA have done in our names have compromised our principles.
Let us continue to show the Ministry how they have got this wrong, how what we do is valued and valuable and deserves to be preserved and cherished now and for the future.
After all justice is only justice if you can access it and there are people willing and able to advance the case for it. This morning and every morning after today we must fight on to ensure that, and fight together.