By the light of a dying star…

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“A great deal of talent is lost to the world for the want of a little courage…”

Sydney Smith

Hannah Evans is a third six pupil at 23 Essex Street, a young barrister with fire in her belly and a passion for what she does. She gave a speech at the One Bar event arranged by the Bar Council on 8 February. Her speech, which makes compelling reading and exhibits a greater level of understanding of the career she is embarking upon than anything trotted out by the Ministry of Justice can be read here.

Hannah is like so very many of the Junior Bar, burdened with debt trying to get the tiniest toe hold in the profession. There are so many young, talented people at her level in both sides of the profession working in publicly funded areas of law who we are at very real risk of losing when the cuts proposed by the Ministry of Justice are imposed.

The majority of the profession, both barristers and solicitors do this job realising that they were never going to be rich. They do the job with a passion for the job, with a firmly held belief that what we do is something good, to try and make their clients problems a little easier to bear. We don’t do the job to put rapists and murderers on the street but to ensure that we at least try and do what is right and ensure justice is done. Hannah is right, we did not enter the profession for the money, but we do expect and perhaps deserve to be paid enough to make the job viable.

The Bar have waged a good campaign of opposition to the proposals made by the Ministry of Justice on cuts to funding. Solicitors put up a good campaign on the issue of choice for clients, we have been less coherent on cuts to fees and the “consolidation of the market”. This is an area where differing groups of solicitors do not agree.

Many of the bar are rightly regarded as experts in their profession, and much of the new talent is attracted to the Bar for that reason. The Bar deal with the most serious cases that come before the courts; the more complex, the more newsworthy and the ones that capture the imagination and horror of the public more frequently. A properly funded and supported Bar is vital to ensuring that these cases attract bright, young talent to ensure the vitality and diversity of the bar necessary to do these cases justice in every sense of the word.

Yet the Bar is not, and nor should it be the sole repository of all the talent and expertise in the profession. Solicitors, regarded by some as the junior profession possess a great deal of talent, commitment and expertise displayed across the country on a daily basis in police stations, courts and offices. All criminal cases start life at the Magistrates Court, and a very large proportion of those start life in the police station with a suspect under arrest, facing a police officer across a table with a few witness statements that are have the power to change their life in a very real way spread out before them. The advice the solicitor gives at that time, often late at night or in the small hours is crucial. It is something I have tried to instil in those I have had responsibility of training across the years, cases are more often than they think won or lost in that harried process of getting disclosure, instructions and giving advice. It’s not just an interview to get through, it’s what goes to the heart of what we do.

The decisions taken at the Magistrates Court, the information gleaned from those same statements and taken from the client when there are six other people to see and the bench are itching to get on will fundamentally shape the way the client is dealt with.

We are, as solicitors, at the front end of the process. We are the ones that answer the phones at 2am to an anxious Mother whose son has breached his bail and who has two officers on her doorstep wanting to arrest him. We are the ones that liase between the client, the bailiff, the Doctor, Social Worker and any number of other professionals that the clients cannot or do not want to engage with in their hectic lives. We are the ones that spend the time reassuring the family man, who has never been in trouble before, who after working twelve hours nodded off at the wheel of his car causing an accident that sees him facing court for dangerous driving and facing loss of his job and loss of family home.

Like the Bar we do this against the reality of ever decreasing fees both in real terms and in respect of what work we are even paid for. Whole parts of the job we do is now simply not paid, or is covered by a fixed fee at such a level that it may as well not be paid. Hours are spent waiting in police stations and courts that we cannot claim for. Hearings are adjourned because there is no interpreter, no time and even no court to allow the case to be heard. The Lord Chancellor wants to cut those fees even further.

The preservation of the bar is important but so is the preservation of the criminal defence solicitor at all levels and from a diverse background. There are so very few firms able to offer training contracts and even fewer able to offer places to their trainees if they can offer a contract. The brightest and most able young lawyers don’t want to do publicly funded work. Many can’t afford to, yoked to the debts they have from their degree and LPC courses.

What is clear is that any cuts will result in a loss of large numbers of solicitors no longer doing criminal defence work, either through choice or through necessity. They will lose their jobs as a result of their firms no longer offering criminal defence work or because the bank manager simply does not see them as a viable business anymore. I already know personally of friends and colleagues across the country who have decided to give it up, some by choice opting for early retirement and of some having it imposed upon them. I blogged last year that these cuts represent an extinction event for the profession as we know it. Chris Grayling has made it clear that despite the warnings, the concerns and the very real alternatives proposed to him he intends to press on regardless.

The future of the Bar is and perhaps always has been inextricably linked to the so called junior profession. It’s where their instructions are derived from and whilst there has been a rise in the number of HCA over the years, where the Bars work will still continue to come from. I and others in my profession have instructed the junior bar for low fees to conduct trials and hearings and no doubt will continue to do so. The fees are low because we are paid low fees in the first place, if as a profession we could pay more I have no doubt that we would. It is these cases that the junior bar use as a training ground for their advocacy, it is these cases that help forge the relationship between the solicitor and counsel. Certainly for me this is how I have forged some of my most enduring relationships with counsel and gone on to brief them on ever more serious and complicated cases in the Crown Court and beyond. It is these relationships that will be at risk if the smaller firms go to the wall under the proposed cuts.

We stand side by side as professions working for our clients. We need to continue to stand side by side to protect our clients from these cuts and the impact it will have on them against a Government and a Lord Chancellor who simply chooses to ignore the reality of what he is doing.

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When there is no enemy within, the enemies outside cannot hurt you.

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“When there is no enemy within, the enemies outside cannot hurt you.”
Winston Churchill

There are approximately 125,000 solicitors practising in England and Wales and a further 40,000 who remain on the Solicitors Roll but who do not practice. Additionally, there are about 6000 barristers working in the country.

The e-petition created by Rachel Bentley needs 100,000 signatures to make sure a debate in Parliament on the Ministry of Justice proposals for the reform of Legal Aid. So why have we not yet reached the figure needed? Maths was never one of my strongest subjects but if all the solicitors and all the barristers signed we would be well over the finishing line by now.

Well, obviously not all will support the petition, although I have been struck by the sense of unity within the criminal profession, both solicitors and barristers. Some will still not know about it as it simply does not affect their part of the profession. What relevance does legal aid have to a city lawyer. Others, and this is a view I have come across more and more often, have said to me why should I bother, you did nothing when the Ministry came for me?

This is sadly, true. For too long now we have sat on the sidelines whilst we watched others within the profession get slowly taken apart and thought “Well, thank goodness it wasn’t me, this time!”

Conveyancers lost out as their part of the industry was made open to the market, probate departments watched as unregulated will-writers moved in and took a massive share of the market. The Bar struck a compromise when solicitors fees were cut, solicitors lapped up the right to become Higher Advocates. Civil lawyers were left reeling after various funding reviews and criminal lawyers breathed a sigh of relief when LASPO seemingly left us largely untouched, whilst the family lawyers looked around at the devastation caused.

It’s natural to want to protect your own. It is perhaps understandable to walk on by when you might get hurt by wading in. What it means is that when you need someone to help you they may simply not be there.

I blogged about the possible consequences of LASPO when it was being mooted as far as criminal lawyers were concerned. I mentioned the impact on my family lawyer colleagues but no more. I didn’t understand them, I didn’t appreciate the likely consequences enough to comment on them and left it to those that did to try and do something about it. I regret that now. It may have been of no help but at least I could say I tried.

The Ministry of Justice tell us that they are prepared to listen to us, that they will seriously consider an alternative to PCT and across the board fee cuts if we can show an alternative. The reality is that without the figures, the information on costs, costing and so forth we are always going to be at a disadvantage. The people who hold this information are the very people who want to impose the cuts. We need to have this matter in the open, to have it properly debated and examined and not just within a closed group of lawyers.

The e-petition will not in itself stop PCT, it cannot propose the alternative, but it will raise the issue to a wider audience and will hopefully allow a debate that we can all contribute to.

If you are a lawyer of any sort please sign it, have your colleagues sign it, have your family sign it and raise the issue everywhere. Let us all as a profession, regardless of discipline, history or position move forward together as one. Otherwise when the men from the Ministry come for you, and they will, there may be no-one there to stand by your side.

The person behind the file…

 

 

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The pile of files sitting on my desk at the moment represent to me the cases I have to deal with in the next forty-eight hours. For the people whose name is on the front of those files they represent a critical point in their lives. How I deal with those files, what work I do and how I present their cases could make a real difference in the outcome for them.

My first senior partner was an old school lawyer in every sense of the word. He was from a fortunate background which meant he didn’t need to work, and probably hadn’t needed to work for the nearly forty years he had been qualified. He didn’t need to turn out at 2am on a Sunday morning but he still regularly did.

I once asked him why he still flogged away at the coal face and he told me that he felt he had a moral imperative to speak up for those who could not themselves. He said clients would come to me to discuss their problems, their issues and put them all in an untidy pile on the desk in front of you. As their lawyer it was my job to try to sort through those problems, those messy issues and as far as I could make sure that the pile of problems and issues they took away were at least a bit tidier and a bit smaller when they went away.

As a legal aid lawyer this is what I have always tried to do; this is what in my experience my colleagues, friends and other legal aid lawyers try to do on a daily basis up and down the country. It may not always be appreciated, it certainly doesn’t pay well and it drives the accountants mad.

We are not angels, we are not crusaders, we are not all morally blind liberals. We just understand that clients should have a choice in who they put their trust in, who they want to make their problems a little more manageable. Quality advice makes a difference to the client, to the victim and to all concerned. We are committed to providing a quality service that we can be proud of.

This is what Chris Grayling is taking away, this is what he is trying to dismantle in favour of a cheap, efficient and acceptable service. This is why I and thousands like me have signed the petition against the reforms, why I submitted a response to the consultation and wrote to my MP warning him of the dangers.

If you want the right to choose the lawyer that will care about the name on the front of the file then please do the same. If you want the profession to wither on the vine then don’t do anything at all, sit back and hope someone else does something.

As lawyers we stand up every day and plead our clients cases, we ask for understanding of what they have done, we argue their case because they can’t.

As the MoJ prepares further spin, as the BFG explains why they are best placed to represent the needs of your clients, as the Law Society placate the MoJ with compromise, take a moment to remember it is the name on the front of the file that got you interested in doing it in the first place. All we do is measured against that.

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