Thursday, 13 June 2013

Barristers, Legal Aid and The Media

Many of my clinical negligence clients tell me they hope they will never have to meet me again. I don't take it personally. If you need to consult with a barrister then you are usually in some kind of crisis. My clients have suffered bereavement or life-changing injury. They are often in financial need. The law imposes substantial hurdles to them holding those responsible to account. Lawyers do not make the law, but they help people who have to deal with the law. That is a necessary and useful service.

When I was called to the Bar in 1989 I joined a profession with an honourable history. Lincoln, Gandhi, Mandela - all lawyers. Although not of that calibre, most barristers I have encountered have been honest, hard-working and talented. Given the nature of our work, the number of complaints made to the independent regulator by people who actually come into contact with barristers is astonishingly low.

And yet, some people really do like to have a go at us.

Harry Mount oozed scorn for the legal profession in his Spectator article last week: for him lawyers have created an "over-priced, agonising racket." He claims that barristers are used to "gilt-edged perks" "privileges and subsidies". Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail regards us as an "over-complicating, tax-sponging cabal". He scoffs at the idea that the head of the Criminal Bar Association should be concerned about the impact of government proposals on legal ethics: "Legal ethics? Remind me."

Perhaps it is foolish to react. Comment journalists are not obliged to write reasoned, balanced articles. No-one would regard them as having a deep knowledge of the justice system. Next week they are as likely to express equally forthright opinions on the NHS, education or immigration. Reacting to playground taunting might only serve to raise the volume.

Yet, their opinions are widely read and, you sense, in tune with those of Mr Grayling. It has been decided that the best way to respond to opposition to the MoJ's legal aid proposals is concerted lawyer-bashing. After all, who loves lawyers?

So, if we do not stand up for ourselves and for the system of justice in which we work, we cannot expect anyone else to do so.

There is a perfectly reasonable argument to be had about the high costs of litigation. Barristers who do not depend on publicly funded work are generally very well paid. Fire away. But the current argument is about legal aid. Barristers whose income is from legal aid are not generally overpaid. Every year the press publishes a list of the barristers who have received the most in legal aid fees. These are the top earners, the elite, often conducting the most difficult and sensitive cases.  There are thousands of others earning a small fraction of the fees at the top. You cannot infer the average wages of journalists from knowing what Quentin Letts earns.

If the legal aid proposals were just about trimming fees then there would not be the same level of opposition. What really sticks in the craw is not the invective about money, but being sneered at by these journalists the work that we do and for our belief in the value of having a justice system that is accessible to all. Messrs Mount and Letts surely know that this opposition to Mr Grayling's legal aid proposals is not about lining the pockets of what Mr Mount calls "millionaire QCs". The great majority of lawyers strongly oppose the proposals because they will undermine access to justice. They will deprive those on criminal legal aid of the choice of lawyer. They will drive down access to experienced, good quality legal services. Should we just shut up about that?  

As for the snide attacks on lawyers themselves, actually, Mr Letts, ethics are extremely important to lawyers. And maintenance of legal ethics is important to anyone unfortunate enough to be caught up in the legal system. A strong code of conduct, enforced by independent regulation, is crucial to maintaining professional standards. The legal system relies on the integrity of lawyers to function effectively.

It is curious that most of the vitriol comes from the political right. A strong legal system accessible to all and which secures the rights of individuals, including their right to protection against the state should surely be a cornerstone of any libertarian's beliefs. Would the political right prefer the state to have fewer checks on its authority over individual citizens?

The caricature of the fat cat barrister whose only interest is to line his own pockets is becoming tedious. Barristers do perform a necessary and worthwhile service and most of us do care about our system of justice. Some may regard that statement as laughable, but I believe it is true.

Lawyers do not need to be loved, but they should be respected as knowing something about the legal system. We are entitled to be listened to when we oppose government proposals which we believe will damage that system. We should not be pilloried for speaking out.

On a not unrelated matter - please consider sponsoring me and the other barristers swimming in the Great North Swim in aid of the North West Legal Support Trust - the link is here . The Trust supports bodies who provide access to justice for those who would not otherwise be able to afford it.

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