Life at the Bar · The Future

The Law of Unintended Consequences

The position is this:

  • The Bar has come out to support the solicitors. Extraordinarily, that part of the motion proposed that permitted the solicitors to tell the Bar when they could go back to work remains unaltered and unclarified.
  • The Bar having accepted no returns, the solicitors are refusing to do Crown Court work. That means the main type of work for the criminal Bar will dry up shortly.
  • It is therefore imperative that this action is concluded swiftly. Before people go bankrupt.
  • Today, having met the MoJ, the solicitors have announced that they will return to work in the Magistrates Court. The fees that they earn are, apparently, going to filter through to the junior Bar via Magistrates Courts briefs. No word on anyone who makes their living from the Crown Court – and in the Circuits that includes just about anyone of more than 2 years call with any ability.

It is clear, therefore, that the solicitors can now hold out much longer than the Bar. It is also clear that the financial risk of this action has been very largely transferred from solicitors to barristers.

I entirely understand why solicitors would wish to do this: they have obligations to staff and they do not wish to go out of business. I am also resolved that, having voted against action, I am personally going to honour the majority vote. And, as previously, I am offering my services (obviously for free) via my Circuit to anyone experiencing judicial interference.

That does not deal with the position we are in however. In particular:

  • We do not know at what stage the Bar can go back to work in its primary centre of practice, the Crown Court. Is there yet a mechanism for the solciitors to permit us to do so? Which solicitors, or solicitors’ group (the CLSA, the LCCSA, the BFG or the Law Society) will make that decision?
  • How is it now asserted that there is a community of interest? Having obtained the Bar’s support, the solicitors have opted for unequal pain. As I say, I understand the economics completely. What I do not understand is whether this is what the proposers of action contemplated. I certainly do not recall being told that within days of a vote for action, this is what would happen.
  • In what way does this differ from the ‘deal’ done by the Bar last year? Obviously, it is not an agreement with the MoJ (see below). But the effect of it seems to me to be to leave the Bar doing the heavy lifting, in exchange for the prospect of some Magistrates Courts trials. Is that not the objection to ‘the deal’ – that the Bar acted only to protect its own position and left the solicitors exposed?
  • Who, for the solicitors, is putting in the hard yards working out precisely how an accommodation is going to be reached with the MoJ? For all the cries of betrayal, the fact is that what the CBA and the Bar Council achieved for the Bar was an annulment of the proposed fee cut, and a relationship with the MoJ that is patently wholly different to the one before the action last year. That clearly involved a huge amount of hard work, not trumpeted on social media and not paraded before a cheering crowd of angry barristers as a triumph – presumably because to do so would be to undermine the very foundations of what had been built. Who is doing that for the solicitors?
  • There are only 2 possibilities: there is more money for legal aid. Or there isn’t. If the former, then what is being done by the solicitors to secure it? Whatever the economic merits of today’s decision, it certainly doesn’t exert any more pressure. If going back to work in the Magistrates Courts is the only way for solicitors to carry on why weren’t we told? What consideration, for example, has been given to withdrawing bids for the 2 tier contracts that we are assured will wreck solicitors’ practices? What consideration to a mass breach of contract by refusing duty work, so that the MoJ would either sue all or sue none?
  • Before today, those might properly have been matters only for solicitors. But, if the belief is that there is more money available, and if the reason for going back to work in the Magistrates Courts is to enable action to bite harder then the solicitors are now reliant on the Bar. That means we are a stake holder. The issue of the CBA’s attendance at today’s meeting is irrelevant, because – as the CLSA has confirmed – the CBA was only ever to be an ‘observer’. Never mind that. Given the transfer of risk to the Bar, what are we being told about how matters will now proceed?
  • Now let’s assume – as today’s developments seem to me to implicitly acknowledge – that the legal aid fairy isn’t going to wave the magic wand of restored fees. What are the solicitors going to do within the current legal aid budget? At present we are supporting action to assist them (and, it is said, ourselves). What is their plan B (assuming plan A to be the waving of that wand)? Are the solicitors in a position to suggest to the MoJ an alternative to the current plans that would be cost neutral, but would be more palatable? Or even an alternative that only involves reversing the fee cut? Or only the dual contracts? Again, as a stakeholder we are, surely, now entitled to be told.
  • How does this development – which plainly places junior counsel at enormous risk and which is hardly going to be offset by increased Magistrates Courts work – assist us to the sunny uplit highlands of solicitors celebrating their own survival, thanks to our assistance and the unity for which we voted, by giving us more work (or, in the case of the BFG, not taking our work at quite such a rate)? Are we to test the certainly of that outcome by measuring the increased Magistrates Courts work coming into Chambers? Or are we to disregard today’s development and the fact that we were not told about it before we voted? And, if so, why?

Either today’s return to Magistrates Court work was predictable or it was not. If it was predictable, then why did those calling for action (barristers and solicitors) not predict it? [That question is irrelevant to those counselling against action as anyone suggesting that it would happen would have been rightly accused of asserting those campaigning for action were acting in bad faith]. If it was not predictable, then should we reconsider our position? If not, why not? And, what do we make of the irony that when the Lord Chancellor talks up the Bar we must regard it as a sinister plot, but that when those calling for unity fail to tell us that this is the plan, we must assume that, nonetheless, unity was demonstrated today?

I have noticed the distinct silence of those members of the Bar who campaigned vigorously for the position we are now in. I would like them to deal with these issues – not because it is important to settle scores or because schadenfreunde is enjoyable – but because they asserted themselves as fit to lead us. That being so, one would expect them to be able to provide answers – and soon.

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