Life at the Thin Edge of the Wedge – The Grim Reality of the Independent Junior Criminal Bar

THERE HAVE BEEN SO MANY EXCELLENT POSTS FROM INDIVIDUAL BLOGGERS LATELY, THAT THIS BLOG SITE HAS BEEN HAPPY TO SIT BACK AND LET THEM SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES.

THIS ONE, FROM STEPHANIE VARLE OF HARRINGTON CHAMBERS IN LIVERPOOL, A BARRISTER OF THREE YEARS CALL, AND LIKE SO MANY, UTTERLY COMMITTED TO HER PROFESSION AND HER CLIENTS, DEMANDS AS WIDE AN AUDIENCE AS POSSIBLE. 

SO WITH HER PERMISSION AND OUR THANKS, WE ARE PROUD TO REPRODUCE IT UNEDITED AND IN FULL.

PLEASE PASS IT ON TO ANY NON LAWYER YOU KNOW WHO STILL HAS NOT BEEN ABLE TO GRASP WHAT THIS IS ALL ABOUT.

 

When asked what I do for a living, I often hesitate momentarily before changing the subject. Despite feeling immensely proud and privileged to have made it into the illustrious world of the purported legal ‘elite’, the words ‘criminal barrister’ do not roll off the tongue with the ease I’d expected such achievement would ultimately engender. You see, experience tells me that once a new acquaintance hears the ‘B’ word, their reaction will invariably range somewhere between curious disgust right up to the unfettered revulsion you might feel if you found out you’d just mistakenly cleaned your teeth with the old toothbrush reserved for scrubbing under the rim of the toilet…

Over the months, I have gleaned with an increasing sense of incredulity (mainly through the projection of typed vitriol from anonymous members of the public who have contributed to the various comments pages in the national press) that people don’t just dislike criminal barristers: they actively hate them. It would appear that such detestation stems from a single unqualified and hitherto unchallenged belief: that criminal barristers are contemptuously rich, upper-class, cash-leaching parasites, who take pleasure in feeding off the misery of an already-downtrodden society, by plundering a bottomless trough of public money in order to fund endless rounds of golf in the Caribbean; invariably with a bunch of cockroach-headed criminal barrister chums. I have come to the sad conclusion that far from being viewed as a respected, time-honored profession necessary for the protection of a safe and fair society; the general public currently ranks criminal barristers (and indeed solicitors) somewhere between paedophiles and pond algae on the food chain. It is no wonder that the recent ‘Reforming Legal Aid’ proposals (colloquially known as ‘Butchering Justice’ to those who work within the profession) have generated at best public apathy, and at worst, public support.

Whatever your television drama-inspired preconceptions about the elusive world of the Criminal Bar, I invite you to suspend your judgment for just a few minutes. This article seeks to shatter and correct the inaccurate ‘fat cat’ stereotype, which seeks to do the vast majority of my outstanding, hardworking colleagues a gross disservice. Whilst focused upon the plight of the junior Criminal Bar, most of what is written applies equally to criminal counsel and solicitors of all levels. The views and experiences are my own and they might offend. Hey ho.

Schizophrenia, 5am Trains and Chipmunks

Being a barrister is not a glamorous job. Each case is a random selection from a veritable smorgasbord of child rape, animal pornography, domestic violence and death. Each working day requires a strong stomach, a bottomless overdraft, a thick skin and the ability to survive on a petrol-station-food diet. Despite Maxine Peake’s convincing portrayal of the elegant Martha Costello QC in the popular ITV drama, Silk, the reality of life as a junior criminal barrister is nowhere near as alluring or straightforward. Whilst Martha, red lippy neatly applied, glides elegantly into court within walking distance of her chambers just before the case starts, I am often seen resembling a slightly deranged, irate scarecrow wrestling a large suitcase, part-read lever-arch file and unruly umbrella on a windy, rain-soaked railway platform at a time when most people are in deep REM sleep. With many a 4.30am start and 2am finish, I have neglected those I love and have thus so far foregone having children, buying a property or obtaining a pension in pursuit of my career. I have pondered the subject of untimely chipmunk death more than is healthy. I have cross-examined psychopaths, received death threats, been shouted at by judges and have lost so many hours of sleep that my family tell me I have aged ten years in less than three. There is something deliciously masochistic about being an independent criminal barrister: the unenviable pressures of work, you might think, could only be rewarded by a handsome remuneration. So, what do I do and what am I paid?

A Day in the Life…

Nothing can emotionally equip you for the day that you are sitting alone in a cell with someone accused of having sex with a child, having to go through graphic details of their alleged perversion. God forbid that you are required by the court to grade haunting child pornography pictures. I recall with a sense of nausea the day in which I prosecuted a solicitor-advocate who demanded that the court re-classify a photograph of an 8-year old girl shackled on her hands and knees to a bed, from a level five (bestiality and Sadomasochism) to a level four, as ‘the presence of a dog’s head near her genitals did not indicate that she would have gone on to be forced to engage in sexual relations with the animal’. As much as I wanted to walk out and be sick, as much as I wanted to clear my mind of this awful vision; my professional duties meant that I remained on my feet, wigged and gowned, appearing to be ever the unwavering professional to those baulking in the public gallery. I later went home and cried. Becoming a criminal barrister, I learned, does not make a person an emotional automaton. You just become incredibly adept at maintaining a poker face and a cool head. What would you have to be paid to view an ever-haunting image such as the one I have described? Could you forget it? I can’t.

It is worthy of note that I prosecuted the aforementioned case: my job is as much about looking after witnesses and victims as it is representing those accused of crimes. I frequently spend my lunch hours sitting in the witness suite, not being paid for such, explaining cases and procedure to those who have been burgled, attacked or sexually abused. I frequently sit with women who have been beaten by their partner for the twentieth time in front of their children, who wish to retract their statement but may be prosecuted themselves for doing so, in a bid to guide them through the law. Sadly, the press chooses to ignore such efforts, as ‘fat cat’ is much easier to type.

Further, unlike many other professions whereby it’s relatively easy to turn up each day and turn in a standard, often-rehearsed performance, being a criminal barrister means that most of your life is spent living on your nerves. No two days are the same: the criminal law is constantly changing and unlike civil practitioners whose cases are often decided on paper, the scrutiny of the public gallery, press and fellow practitioners is enough to give you cold sweats on a daily basis. The English Criminal Bar is revered the world over as a centre of excellence: simply put, any practitioner who is judged as less than outstanding would find it very difficult to be briefed, let alone be respected by colleagues and judges alike.

Being a junior criminal practitioner affords you no concessions: once you stand up to make your submissions, no judge, jury or journalist will look upon you with sympathetic consideration. If you forget to ask a crucial question, dry up or your interpretation of the law is woefully wrong, your chambers and instructing solicitor will hear about it on the grapevine before you even get back to the robing room to cry in the toilets. Being a self-employed, independent practitioner means that your learning is instinctive; through osmosis watching senior, more accomplished barristers as well as through rigorous ongoing self-learning. In the early days, self-esteem plummets to make way for superficial confidence necessary to do the job; before incremental benchmarks of competence are reached. I have found this to be a necessary process which serves to keep me switched on, focussed on excellence and grounded. But an easy process it is not: in the early days, I am not ashamed to say that the pressure and politics of pupillage, the unpredictability of travelling the length and breadth of the UK on cases received the night before and the stress of working 70 hours plus each week was enough to put me temporarily on anti-depressants.

Whilst my training and education took many years, costing tens of thousands of pounds; at no stage was I ever taught to recognise or deal with signs of Schizophrenia, personality disorders or other mental health problems; an increasingly common situation which besets me each week. I frequently sit in front of clients in conference rooms, who have self-harm injuries, a history of suicide attempts or drug and alcohol abuse problems. Bear in mind that unlike social workers or police officers, who have managers and co-workers with whom to discuss difficult cases, an independent criminal practitioner generally works alone, with only their sense of judgment for company. Reasoning with an agitated, unmedicated, violent Schizophrenic who has been locked in a cell overnight requires patience, understanding and unparalleled communication skills. To then stand up in court and articulate your case to a judge requires tenacity, adaptability and poise. Are these skills not important? Would they be more important if it were your son or daughter in the dock or witness suite?

Fortunately, the majority of criminal barristers whom I have been fortunate to encounter during my short career thus so far, are best described as well-spoken social workers in wigs, who care immensely about doing a truly outstanding job. To say that anyone can do this job would be to suggest that the average person is an indomitable, fearless, perfection-oriented workhorse who strives constantly to be better than they were yesterday, in the pursuit of justice and fairness: hardly ubiquitous characteristics in today’s disposable, convenience-obsessed world. It therefore offends me when it is suggested by those who have no idea what I do and for what financial reward; that my contribution is worth very little to society. You might be surprised to learn that what I earned last year couldn’t be construed as a ‘living wage’ – i.e. enough to sustain my already frugal standard of living. Whilst many in other professional roles or indeed civil barristers can easily make a few hundred quid from a few hours’ work, junior criminal practitioners are at the coal face of abuse, violence and neglect every day of their working lives, for a relative pittance.

We work incredibly long hours borne out of sheer personal passion, professional pride, the love of the struggle, and because the vast majority of us actually care about what we do. Contrary to popular misconception, criminal lawyers are not self-serving robots: we may have woefully failed on the public relations front; however this isn’t because we have nothing to say on the subject. We are simply too busy working 70-hour weeks on behalf of our clients and victims to have regard to correcting a misaligned stereotype largely perpetrated by lazy, selective and often downright inaccurate journalism designed to sell newspapers rather than educate the masses.

Many will not be persuaded that I am an ordinary working class woman with a lovely dinner-lady mum and a huge, ever-increasing overdraft. As people watch me sweep, raven-like through the court foyer in my billowing Batman-inspired fancy dress, I see the envious pounds signs reflected in people’s eyes, as I secretly worry whether I can afford to buy my instructing solicitor a vending machine coffee… So, let me tell you what I get in return for my efforts.

What Does It Cost to Be in Practice?

To be in practice costs hundreds of pounds every month. For every pound that I earn, I must pay out the following:

  • Chambers’ rent (around £400 – £500 per month)
  • Clerks’ fees (7% of what I am paid that month + VAT)
  • Tax at 20%
  • VAT at 20%
  • Train fares (I work all over the country between Carlisle and London)
  • Parking (city centre weekday parking, so always double figures)
  • Fuel and vehicle running costs
  • Practising certificate costs,
  • Professional liability insurance
  • Practitioner texts (published and replaced each year at a cost of £900 per annum)
  • Legal database subscription fees
  • Data controller fees (another government tax designed to steal from hardworking people who dare to send work emails)
  • Compulsory continuing professional development courses and seminars

This list fails to mention all of the other countless expenses associated with being a self-employed barrister, such as clothing, stationary, accountancy fees, computer costs, dry cleaning of suits, (etc.).

Now let’s look at what I don’t receive:

  • Holiday pay (typically 4-6-weeks per year for many employees)
  • Maternity pay
  • Sick pay
  • A pension
  • Company car
  • Expenses such as travel, parking, fuel (etc.) I pay for it! It is not reimbursed by the expenses fairy, in case you were wondering…
  • Pay towards my ‘uniform’ (my wig and gown cost a mere £800; loose change to me, obvioulsy)

Remuneration

So, the question on everybody’s lips: what do I get paid? If I told you my annual income after deductions for the last financial year, you wouldn’t believe me just yet. Let’s build up to it by taking an ordinary day last month. It involved the sentence of a young man (let’s call him James), who suffered with severe mental health issues including Schizophrenia. He had pleaded guilty on advice to an offence of Actual Bodily Harm. James had no parents or siblings, having been orphaned following an abusive childhood which had left him with severe learning difficulties. Stuck in the care system, he was a youth to which many outside ‘the system’ will have little regard: he is by all reckoning a socially invisible individual by virtue of him being completely unloved. Sadly, I meet many clients like James a lot. I sat with this bewildered, frightened young man in the cells for probably the longest period that anyone had spent with him, for no good reason other than to chat to him, in a long time. Having prepared the case the night before, I had already spent around two-and-a-half hours researching the relevant law, reading his psychiatric report and case papers and drafting my oral submissions. I drove two hours to court, liaised with the court clerk, the consultant psychiatrist, my opponent who represented the Crown and my instructing solicitor in advance of the hearing, as well as making a few trips up and down to the cells to explain the developments in the case to James himself. Finally, I presented the case in court, questioned the psychiatrist in front of the judge and made my closing submissions, which were to have a far-reaching and life-changing impact upon whether this young man was ever released from a psychiatric setting. Those in the public gallery would have seen me bewigged and gowned, looking very much the traditional courtroom barrister. How much would you assume that I got paid for that ‘brief’? £1,000? £2,000? More?

The psychiatrist and I chatted in the lift as we made our way out following the case. He told me that he had billed over £2,000.00 for his day in court. I was paid £84.50 (yes, you read that correctly: eighty four pounds and fifty pence). The psychiatrist was paid expenses; however, after I had paid out my £12.60 in parking, £15 in petrol, chambers’ rent, clerks’ fees, tax (etc.), I would have earned around £30. For the ten hours’ work, excluding the four hour commute, I was paid approximately £3.00 (yes, three pounds) per hour. Whilst the doctor walked away with enough money to buy two weeks in Mexico, I could barely afford a sandwich.

I knew what I would be paid in advance, but fortunately, my conscience and sense of public justice overrides any desire to trade in my executive 2004 Toyota Yaris for an Audi Quattro. You may be surprised to learn that many cases which I prosecute or defend pay fees equivalent to those cited in this case. Whether I travel to Birmingham, Ipswich, Newcastle or Manchester; I am not paid travel expenses. When the £84.50 fee is less than the £145, eight-hours-long, return train fare, I still know without reservation that I will always, always, always do my best for the client. Even, as happens with increasing regularity, if I am paying out of my own pocket to be in court. With my financial self-interest often diametrically opposed to my client’s best interests, I can only say that the Criminal Justice System is lucky to benefit from publically funded lawyers like me, who work tirelessly to their own and their family’s financial detriment in the name of justice.

Today, I spent five hours researching and drafting grounds of appeal against sentence for a 71-year old client who was sent to prison for an offence he committed following the nursing of his wife through terminal cancer. I know that I will not get paid to draft an advice on appeal. I did it because my conscience tells me that it’s the right thing to do, not because I am financially incentivised. If I only worked when such work remunerated me to a decent standard, I would not work very often. In fact, I would not work at all. Criminal barristers are not paid for written work; however it must come as no surprise that we do a fair amount of written work throughout the week. In fact, when we are not in court or reading a case, we are writing our submissions, drafting attendance notes or preparing advices; all in the spirit of doing ‘the right thing’.

The ‘right thing’ is a noble concept, often lost on profit-driven companies like G4S, Eddie Stobart and Serco. I wonder with trepidation how clients like James will be treated if Chris Grayling pushes through his catastrophic plans which derive, in my opinion, from personal greed, arrogance and an almost psychopathic career-oriented need for self-advancement, rather than an altruistic attempt to save money or help the already-stretched Legal Aid system. Many others have eloquently written about this subject; therefore I shall simply say that for every reason Grayling could proffer to legitimise his ludicrous, ill-thought out schemes, I could find you a thousand criminal lawyers and a dozen reasons to rebut him. Such lawyers will talk not of their already diminished fees which have been reduced significantly over the last fifteen years, but of the risk to ordinary people like you. The risk is this: in the event your husband is arrested for a historic rape allegation allegedly committed during his university days, or you are arrested and remanded in custody for death by careless driving after running over a drunken pensioner who stepped out in front of your car, you will be allocated call-centre, wholesale ‘justice’; namely, a non-specialist lawyer whom you have never met nor chosen, who is contracted potentially to a firm more commonly associated with tachographs and haulage (yes, lorry drivers) on the basis that they were the lowest bidder. I am sure that I need not say more on this subject.

Working Twice the Hours of a Non-Lawyer, for a Quarter of the Pay

So, what is all of this worth to the Government and society? What was I paid in exchange for the time, money and effort I invested over the last ten years of relentless study and hard work?

Last year, for twelve months’ work, averaging six days and between sixty and seventy hours per week, covering thousands and thousands of miles all over the UK, I was paid a grand total of £20,429.75 after VAT but before before tax and expenses. After estimated deductions of around £10,000 for the expenses, travel costs, chambers/clerk’s fees I have detailed earlier, I would, quite literally have been better off on benefits and would ironically qualify for tax credits and Legal Aid. If money is the barometer by which society measures value based upon a person’s skills, qualifications and experience; mine, it appears, is worth less than minimum wage. So, should I continue to break my back to go that extra mile for complete strangers, as I descend deeper and deeper into debt and stress? When the alarm goes off at 3.30am, do I feel incentivised to drive the six hours to Ipswich, knowing I will be sixty pounds out of pocket for the privilege? Last time I did this, the Judge said prophetically: ‘I know that you have driven a long way to get here. You do know that you won’t be paid for today, but you should look on this experience as character building’. I wondered whether my bank manager would accept payment in character towards my burgeoning loans, as I made the lonely seven hour trip home just minutes after hearing that my case had been adjourned; something everyone else knew before I even awoke at 3am to make the trip… Would you work a 16-hour day and pay for the privilege? Non-criminal lawyers might be shocked, but my junior criminal practitioner colleagues can match my story over and over again without batting an eyelid.

For those wondering about my background, I am three years into practice having been called to the Bar in 2009. I am 34-years old, with an accomplished former civilian career in the police, having paid for university and postgraduate education from my own pocket. Part of me regrets giving up the chance of a pension, job security and the stability of predictable, steady work in order to chase my lifelong dream of being an advocate. It pains me to say that at this rate, I will end up bankrupt before I am able to confront the issue of being to take time out to have a family. The reality is that I can barely afford to pay the utility bills, let alone take a six-month unpaid maternity break or pay for full-time childcare.

What many outside the profession refuse to entertain, let alone comprehend, is that criminal practitioners often work for free: gratis, sans payment. We are not paid by the hour, we are not paid expenses and sometimes, we are not paid at all. The bitter irony of being a junior criminal practitioner is that for the vast majority, we have some excellent dinner party stories; we just can’t afford to have a dinner party. The general public has benefited from the efficiency, industriousness and good grace of a profession, whose junior practitioners work twice as many as hours as other professions for a quarter of the pay. This is unacceptable, exploitative and disenfranchising for the talented, dedicated people who give up so much of themselves to do what can only be described as an incredibly challenging job.

Conclusion

Speaking with an ex-criminal barrister yesterday, we both agreed that our profession can be a masochistic, all-consuming, expensive adventure with occasional moments of triumph. The truth is that there are rarely winners in any criminal case, irrespective of the result. Lives are ruined, relationships and reputations destroyed, whole families torn apart: no barrister delights in the misery of others, no matter the result. We are rarely thanked and often criticised by the press. Our work is taken for granted by the public, who unknowingly demand excellence in exchange for peanuts.

After three short years in practice, I am mentally, physically and financially drained. But, I can think of no other vocation which would fill me with the fire, passion and tenacity to push on in the face of adversity, in the way that this noble profession does. It might not nurture me financially, but I will continue to fight to the bitter end to do the job that I love in order to protect the system of justice for the public. I will continue to feel fortunate to work in an arena where I can be a solitary voice for those who are often at their most vulnerable and frightened when I meet them.

You might not fully understand what we do or why we do it, but one thing is clear: as in the case of bin men or those who work processing raw sewerage, you would undoubtedly notice and start to value Legally Aided criminal practitioners if we downed tools and stopped doing what we do, without question or complaint, every working day of our lives. If you found yourself on the wrong side of the law, or indeed the victim of a terrible crime, you might be surprised at just how quickly you would come to appreciate our unwavering dedication to justice, tenacity to maintain standards of excellence and sheer hard work: hallmarks of the work of the junior Criminal Bar; most of which is poorly paid, if paid at all. The Government has already taken advantage of the goodwill of the Criminal Bar for too long:  the junior end simply cannot and will not weather any further cuts.

Criminal practitioners allow ordinary people to turn a blind eye to the atrocities happening daily within our society by frequently dealing with the detail which the press refers to as ‘too distressing to print’. When a person is convicted or acquitted, our revered, unparalleled legal system reassures people that miscarriages of justice are rare. It is through the tireless and often unrecognised efforts of criminal practitioners, alongside judges, interpreters, the police, prisons, the Probation Service and Youth Offending Service, that people are afforded the freedom of a civilised society. It would be a travesty if the profession became the province of profit over common sense, convenience and targets over justice and parity. I only hope that I am able to remain in the profession long enough to see it saved from Grayling’s slippery grasp, as junior criminal barristers like me are quickly being priced out of the Criminal Justice System, sadly becoming relegated to the category of endangered species.

A junior criminal practitioner, 2009 Call, Lincoln’s Inn.

27th May 2013.

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GRAYLING WRECKS JUSTICE SYSTEM. A DAMNING INDICTMENT FROM PETER COOPER

Peter is a strong and active voice in St Ives Chambers in Birmingham.

This is a comprehensive analysis of PCT, its shortcomings, the potential disaster it poses for our Criminal Justice System, and what YOU, yes, YOU can do to prevent it.

What is happening?

Devastating changes to our criminal justice system are being planned by the so called “Justice Secretary” and Lord Chancellor, Chris Grayling. A thousand years in the making, and yet fundamental freedoms will be destroyed at a stroke, without even a vote in Parliament, if he gets his way. Mr Grayling is the first holder of his office in modern times not to have a legal qualification, and it shows. His proposals will have profound effects upon any citizens who find themselves wrongly accused of an offence. The criminal justice system will never be the same again if these proposals become law, and they must be stopped. An executive summary follows. For those with more time there is additional information, with real life examples, on succeeding pages. Please do not leave this page without following the two attached links. The first enables you to sign a government e-petition: 100,000 signatures will ensure a debate in parliament. The second will take you to a campaign page hosted by campaigning consumer group 38 Degrees. Signatures to both will take you only a few minutes and will show the government that a fair legal system is widely supported and valued.

https://submissions.epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/48628/signature/new

http://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/save-legal-aid-say-no-to-cut-price-justice

The Executive Summary

No choice of lawyer for persons accused of crime (or, as Grayling has publicly described them, “criminals”). Criminal defence franchises to be allocated to the lowest bidder in a ‘race to the bottom’. All bids must be at least 17.5% less than existing solicitors’ rates (already slashed in recent years) but the lowest bid will win. Individual accused to be allocated to one of these “lowest bidder” franchises according to name, or date of birth, or perhaps postcode. No change of representative allowed save in exceptional circumstances. No incentive to do a good job: the contracts will guarantee the successful “lowest bidder” franchise a specified share of the work for 3 to 5 years. No opportunity for an accused to use a trusted family solicitor with a good track record. No access to legal aid for anyone with a combined household income of more than about £37,000 a year. Note that anyone who pays for proper representation and is acquitted after trial cannot recover their actual legal expenses, but only the derisory equivalent of legal aid rates. Advocates fees (already slashed for those doing the most serious work by about 40% from their 1997 levels: yes, 1997, a full 16 years ago!) to be slashed again, by about 30% in many cases. Any advocate acting for a defendant in a long trial to be, in effect, ‘punished’ by reducing their daily fee to a figure which can be as low as £14 a day.

No-one of ability or experience could do a proper job and make a living on these terms. Shysters will flood in and deliver a “go through the motions” service: minimal ability, minimal effort, minimal cost. A sham of a justice system. Grayling’s own staff, at an embarrassing “road show” in Reading on 7th May 2013, were quite unable to point to any provisions in these proposals which were capable of ensuring quality of representation. See the excellent Guardian article by veteran legal commentator Joshua Rozenberg at:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/law/2013/may/08/legal-aid-tendering-moj?mobile-redirect=false

So please follow the above links and sign both the above petitions. If you want to know more, please feel free to read on.

Basic British freedoms

Our legal system has long been the envy of the world. It has, in fact, been the model for many of the best modern legal systems across the globe. It is easy to forget that the freedoms which we take for granted rest principally upon five things: our right to vote; free universal education; the NHS; freedom of speech; and our legal system. Take any one of those away and the country would never be the same again. Only a man with no knowledge or understanding of our legal system could dream of wrecking it in this way. Chris Grayling is just such a man. If he is not stopped, he will do untold damage, which will potentially affect each one of us.

Dodgy courts abroad

We regularly read of troubling miscarriages of justice in foreign courts. Some involve British citizens. Many countries have few or none of the safeguards we take for granted. People are locked up without trial (even in the United States: Guantanamo Bay). Confessions made under torture or duress are admitted in evidence. Judges bend to political influence or bribery. Unreliable witnesses are not properly challenged. Lying or corrupt police officers are routinely believed. Robust and independent lawyers are rare, and are themselves at risk of intimidation, imprisonment or violence. Legal aid is non-existent. Where there is a form of legal aid, officials can decide which lawyer will represent an accused. Those lawyers can be at best complacent, and at worst, corrupt and complicit. Unsafe convictions are met with barbaric sentences.

It is the constant vigilance of criminal lawyers over many years which has slowly eradicated most of these abuses from our own criminal justice system. Our system is not perfect, and can get things wrong, but those cases are a tiny minority. Recent savage cuts in criminal legal aid fees have been damaging, and have driven many talented lawyers away from criminal work, but in the midst of our financial crisis most legal aid lawyers accepted that some cuts were inevitable. We have now borne more than our share. Quality of representation has already been put at risk, but even now an innocent person wrongly accused in a British court can choose their own lawyer and will usually receive proper representation. Corrupt or tainted evidence will usually be challenged, exposed and discredited. Governments cannot foist a particular lawyer on an accused, and have no say in the outcome of criminal trials. All this is put at risk by Grayling.

Shyster & Co: the lowest bidder

Mr Grayling, without any legal background, training or understanding, now proposes to remove an individual’s right to choose who represents him or her in criminal proceedings. A representative of sorts will be provided: but the government will decide who that is. Accused persons will not be able to choose their own solicitor. Instead, they will be forced to use ‘Eddie Stobart Law’, or ‘Tesco Law’, or ‘Co-op Law’ or ‘Shyster & Co’: in short, whichever concern has successfully bid a lower sum than all their competitors to run the local legal aid franchise. This is nothing less than a “race to the bottom” in terms of quality. There will be no incentive to provide a quality service: quite the opposite. Only by operating in a superficial and impersonal way, using cheap, poorly qualified or unqualified staff, with the briefest of client consultations, could these concerns make a profit. There will be no incentive to do a good job, to win repeat business: repeat business will be guaranteed, because all competition will have been removed. “Do it on the cheap” will be the only motto, and any other approach would be financial suicide.

It is not just in law that this would be a disaster. Imagine the principle being applied to other areas of vital public service. What would happen if your own GP’s surgery was to be run by the company which bid the lowest sum for the local contract, and if you could not then choose to go elsewhere? What if the local police force was to be franchised out in the same way? Or your local primary or secondary school? There would be public outrage. Yet why, if the government succeed in bringing the principle into effect in one area of public service, would they not eventually look to apply it elsewhere? The principle is exactly the same.

Fat cat lawyers

Some of the proposed changes in fees are laughable. Some long criminal trials heard in this country came about because the prosecution chose to group together more defendants or more charges than was sensible. Defendants cannot choose to be tried separately, and large numbers of defendants in a given case will inevitably result in a long, unwieldy trial. It is now proposed that those defending in such cases should be ‘punished’ by being paid less with each passing day of the trial. In some cases, that would result in a daily fee of just £14 a day (before tax and expenses!) when a trial has lasted 8 weeks. This, for qualified lawyers, would be a fraction of the minimum wage for an unqualified teenage employee. It is nothing less than a government-led attempt to “starve out” criminal advocates. “Oh, you want to do a proper job? Fine. We will stop paying you.” Many weeks into a criminal trial in which I defended in 2011, a young complainant finally admitted having manufactured a false allegation against Mr X, the man whom I represented. She lied, she told the jury, to protect the true culprit. The true culprit is now serving many years in prison. On the latest proposals, someone caught up in a long trial like Mr X would only be represented if a barrister was willing to act for next to nothing.

Grayling is already bending the truth to get his way. Anticipating attacks on his proposals, he has begun recycling the usual tired old headlines about fat cat lawyers. Those headlines are living in the past. Grayling lists a handful of barristers who have made huge sums from legal aid in the past. They are few, and becoming fewer. Often they have appeared in one wholly exceptional case, which they worked on for years, and then waited years more to be paid for it. Grayling’s own figures show that the majority of criminal advocates (65%) earn less than £50,000 in a year from legal aid, before expenses and tax. After expenses, such figures represent a pre-tax income of perhaps £30,000 to £35,000. No holiday pay, no pension. No tax avoidance (cf Starbucks, N-Power or Google). It is time to forget the stereotypes. Are there rich barristers? Yes. They do other sorts of work. Planning work. Corporate work. Or perhaps being privately paid to represent a John Terry or a Chris Huhne. The average criminal barrister works all hours to make ends meet, drives a Skoda not a Jaguar, and takes two or three weeks holiday a year. Grayling might argue, correctly, that the recent exposure of a few MP’s as corrupt criminals does not mean that every MP is a corrupt criminal. High earnings in the past by a tiny minority of criminal barristers cannot alter the fact that most now make modest incomes by working punishingly long hours.

The real Fat Cats

Of course, it goes without saying that if Mr Grayling ever finds himself accused of a criminal offence, he will be able to pay privately for the very best lawyers, just as Chris Huhne did. The right to choose an independent, properly qualified lawyer, will exist only for the rich and privileged few, like Grayling. Small wonder that he is untroubled. “Let them use Eddie Stobart”.

Will it affect you?

It might. It is tempting, as law abiding citizens, to think that we and those close to us won’t find ourselves before a court. Yet there are many ways in which it can happen. Anyone who drives a car is just one serious accident away from the possibility of being charged with causing death by dangerous driving. People convicted of the latter almost invariably go to prison for years, however blameless their past. Professional criminals use false number plates, carefully matched to the make, model and colour of a car which they have seen in their own area: that car could be yours or mine. In offences of street violence, naïve youngsters can find themselves on the fringe of offending by others, and mistakenly identified as being involved, when they were innocent bystanders. Heavy handed police officers can drag the wrong man out of a football crowd. Identity theft can leave any of us falsely accused of fraud or financial crimes, when someone else gave our details. Jilted lovers cry rape. Individuals find themselves in the dock through taking desperate measures to defend themselves and their family against intruders. The list goes on.

Grayling will not be troubled by these examples, nor by the true cases set out below. He has publicly referred to accused individuals as “Criminals”. It is not that he forgot the central, sacrosanct principle of British Justice (“innocent until proved guilty”): he never learned it in the first place. That crass slip of the tongue was more than just a schoolboy howler by a minister promoted beyond his abilities. Rather, it revealed his true attitude to criminal proceedings, and shows why the proposals of such a dangerous, prejudiced man, must be rejected.

Real life examples

A year or two ago I represented D, a man who had suffered terrible injuries in a car accident on a rural road. The man in the other vehicle died in the accident. D was knocked unconscious in the accident and had no memory of the final seconds before impact. An apparently “independent” witness in a third vehicle blamed D, who was charged with causing death by dangerous driving. D was a man of good character, who had never been convicted of even a speeding offence before. He was now facing a prison sentence of perhaps three or four years. A previous lawyer had told D that he had no chance of being acquitted and should plead guilty. Under Grayling’s proposals, he would have no choice of representation. It was clear, however, to his chosen legal representative that something was not right. That representative instructed me to represent D at trial. The case was properly investigated, expert evidence was obtained, and the “independent” witness and her son were cross-examined. D was acquitted, and, in the words of the trial judge, was proved not to have been at fault. All the indications were that the person really responsible was the “independent” witness, who had performed a dangerous overtaking manoeuvre.

Another example was K, aged 17. This young man was out with friends on a Saturday night when some of his companions were drawn into an argument with a second group of lads. Tempers flared. A lad from the second group spat at a girl. Two of K’s friends struck that lad, knocking him to the ground. They both kicked him to the head and he suffered a fractured skull and brain damage. K was on the fringe of the group and had never swung a blow or kicked anybody. Friends of the injured man however remembered his distinctive clothing. He was pointed out to a policeman and arrested. He ended up charged with causing grievous bodily harm with intent. He had never been in trouble, was a high achiever at school, and was expected to go to university the following year. His caring parents, not wealthy people, were appalled to learn that he faced 7 or 8 years in prison if convicted. He was properly represented, and independent witnesses were traced. The flawed identification was exposed and he was acquitted.

Of course, as a criminal barrister, I represent many individuals who are neither pleasant nor very deserving. Even they need proper representation. They are, for example, at risk of being accused of things which they have not done. People with criminal records sometimes fall under suspicion precisely because of their past, and not because there is proper evidence against them. In this country we spend far more on housing prisoners than we do on paying lawyers to represent them. It is worthwhile, in all our interests, to ensure that we imprison guilty people, but only guilty people.

What can you do?

Sign the two e-petitions

https://submissions.epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/48628/signature/new

and

http://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/save-legal-aid-say-no-to-cut-price-justice

Make an appointment to see your MP. If you are unsure what to say, use the points in this article. If MP’s get visits from even a few different constituents, they get cold feet and look into things properly. If you can’t see your MP, write to him/her. Don’t sit back and do nothing. If the government get away with the ‘Eddie Stobart’ model of providing legal services, one of our most priceless national assets will be lost forever. Eddie Stobart Healthcare or the Eddie Stobart High School may be next, coming to a neighbourhood near you. If they apply for a franchise, would Eddie Stobart be a fit and proper company to do this kind of work? By all means read the following link, http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2013/apr/11/stobart-lorry-chief-contempt-trial , but please bear in mind what Chris Grayling would not: everyone is innocent until proved guilty.

Peter Cooper

May 2013

Marilyn Vitte and Dan Bunting. A Pupil and a Barrister. THEY, Mr. Grayling, are the backbone of a Public Service profession that you would destroy for a cheap political fix.

On Friday night, in Middle Temple Hall, I was lucky enough to listen to two speeches from those who are the present and the future of our profession.

Marilyn Vitte, (a second six pupil at 25 Bedford Row) and @DanBunting, (renowned blogger, barrister and cat herder) first stunned their audience into silence, and then finished, each of them, to standing ovations.

They are not fat cats, nor do they ever wish to be. They are dedicated young professionals who want, in Michael Turner’s words to “Do Right And Fear No-One.”

If The Secretary of State, and his Civil Servants at the MoJ could actually take the time to read these two speeches, we can only surmise that rather than picking up the phone to the CBA, their more likely reaction would be to throw yet more taxpayers money at their spin doctors to plant still further misinformation in the public domain, via their sycophantic admirers in Grub Street.

Marilyn and Dan, you have done us proud. Thank you both.

Marilyn first.

“My Lords, Ladies and Gentleman,

My journey to pupillage was a well trodden path.

After the 3 years it took me to complete my law degree – a further year was spent completing the Bar course. I spent 10 weeks completing unpaid mini pupillages. I and probably all of the candidates considered for pupillage, will have also undertaken unpaid or low paid roles interning, paralegalling or doing some other socially worthy and relevant work to gain pupillage. All this study, all this work experience came in for me at the bargain cost of £33,000.
So you can just imagine, when I received that call from my joint Head of Chambers at a leading criminal set of chambers – I was delighted. The 7 years and hard work had all paid off.

I immediately phoned every barrister who had helped me on my path – Not one thought I had an ounce of sanity. Most were distraught that my life had taken such a downward turn in pursuing a career at the Criminal Bar.
I didn’t actually know what they meant. But then, Six months later, the consultation paper was published.
On that day I was at Bromley Magistrates Court, now in my second six months of pupillage. One may have expected the atmosphere to be subdued and for the talk amongst pupils to consist of ‘plan B’s’ and so on. On the contrary, while the pupils I spoke to were concerned about the proposed changes to the profession – they were infinitely more concerned about their client’s bail applications.

I wasn’t sure if it was just those pupils whose determination to see justice done outweighed their personal concerns until later in chambers.

There, I came across some junior tenants engaged in their own heated debate about the proposals. Each had clearly read the consultation paper from cover to cover and each was proffering their own view on where they saw the Bar in five years time. I remember thinking at that point, that the concern expressed wasn’t for a career denied – but for a society where justice may not be done.

But I know, from speaking to junior barristers both at 25 Bedford Row and those I meet in court, that many who have invested so heavily both emotionally and financially in their chosen careers, are determined to fight for their profession and for their futures in this profession.

In the face of these imminent changes, I was forced to ask myself what I believed my future should and could hold.
What has caused me personally to be resolute and to stand firm is pretty close to home; in fact it is actually something on my doorstep.

Some years ago, I became involved in a number of projects with young people – some of whom were involved in gangs. Some of these young people had found themselves before the magistrates’ and the crown courts. All of you here this evening will be familiar with such young people. Their literacy is often limited. Their backgrounds make for tragic reading and their only support in life is the peer group which led them towards the criminal justice system in the first place.

When these young people told me about their experience of the courts and their representatives, their stories make me proud of the criminal justice system of which I am a part. Whilst some of these young people may deserve to spend time in prison – some may have done terrible things, but many are hard working individuals and these young people are deserving of representation, in my opinion, by the best we can offer – as is every and any individual charged with a criminal offence. They spoke of being heard, of being defended fairly and without being prejudged.

I aspire to become the highly competent and skilled member of the Bar that our profession may rightly be so proud of. I, and many others in my position will continue will work hard to achieve that goal.There is no way I would walk out of my profession, leaving a criminal justice system that risks not being fit for purpose on my understanding of the proposals.

Ultimately, I do not intend to walk away from my vocation unless I am dragged from it. So after asking myself the question ‘what could the future hold’, for me the answer is still ‘a career at the Criminal Bar’.
I would like to say that as summer approaches, my diary is becoming filled with glamorous fixtures, but as it is, this Monday I will at Camberwell Green Magistrates’ Court. No doubt I will be covering five first appearances, two committals, a breach of bail…. and a youth court trial. My clerks tell me that the last person to secure tenancy regularly undertook such a case load. My supervisor tells me that I won’t be able to afford my travel without such a case load, and my parents say they have found me an opening at a fantastic supermarket legal service.

My optimism, determination and passion for my chosen career path are not waning even now. I speak for many pupils of my generation when I say that we intend to remain steadfast in our future aspirations and we look to our respective chambers and professional organisations for guidance and support.

What is obvious is that without fresh blood, the Bar will wither on the branch and die. Those choosing to enter this profession choose to be here because we believe in it. As pupils we are committed, we are passionate and we hope – along with our colleagues to whom we look for guidance….to achieve long and successful careers at the Criminal Bar.”

And then came Dan. A hard act to follow, but follow it he did

My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen,

“I didn’t join the criminal bar to make money, which is just as well. I didn’t however come to work for free, and I’m sure that I’m not alone in that.

We all know the problems, but the problem is that this job has stopped being fun. Last Wednesday I was sitting in the robing room, waiting for a trial to start, when I got an email from the Bank saying my £4,000 overdraft limit had been hit and, if I wanted to pay my Chambers rent, I would have to transfer some money in. I was then in the slightly awkward position of having to ask my other half, a trainee social worker, to lend me some money for a few days.

I’m not generally in the habit of reading EU Directives, but I did find myself wishing that the Government would hurry up and make sure that the LAA (as it’s now known) complies “Directive 2011/7/EU on Combating Late Payment in Commercial Transactions”. Starting with the three grand I’m still owed for a trial three years ago, to the fact that the LAA seems to be constitutionally mandated to refuse to pay a bill in full, or in time.

The conversations around me last week were all in the same vein. The woman who, after 15 years, is leaving the Bar to look after her two children because the money she can earn as a barrister cannot cover her childcare costs. The senior clerk who had to leave his desk to go to the train station and pay the fare of a junior tenant because her credit card was declined and her bank account was empty. [And the barrister of five years call who is having an effectively indefinite career break to look after the children as his wife, a nurse, earns more than he does.] The junior tenant who is working part-time in the evenings and weekends, just to make ends meet.

Why does it sometimes seem that the job has lost its lustre? We “must promote and protect fearlessly and by all proper and lawful means the lay client’s best interests”. That is something we all do, something we all do well, and something that we all take pride in doing well. No-one is asking for a Bentley, but it is harder to stand up to the CPS, to the state, even to a difficult judge, when you are worried how you can pay the bills and whether you will even have a job in a years time.

I don’t want to be the eeyore voice of doom, but it is important that we all understand what is happening to the bar, to the rank and file. The cuts that have been imposed in the last few years are not a question of trimming the fat, but cutting too close to the bone to comfort. We cannot take a further 20% reduction. The Bar has done excellent work in the last thirty years in throwing open the doors of the Inns to those who have the talent, regardless of
their background. The message from the Government is that the legal profession is open to all, provided your trust fund is big enough.

Listening in the robing room, you could be forgiven for thinking that at times this job sounds less like a noble profession, and more like the conversation you would hear from a group of call centre employees with zero hour contracts and a precarious working existence. We often joke that a hearing, or sometimes a whole case, pays less than the minimum wage, but that is sadly the truth. And as a joke, it’s not funny. Most Judges, but sadly not all, understand that when that is the case motivation may be a problem.

I’m just over 10 years call. Many people at my level thought that by now we would be ‘sorted’. We had made our way into a profession and had hoped that after, 5, 10 or 15 years, we would have been settled in it. Some have bought houses or started a family. I am sure that I am not the only person in this hall who has yet to pay off their student’s loan and still carrying debts from university. The only consolation being because I graduated at the turn of the millennium I left university with far less debt that those who are currently studying.

But whatever our personal circumstances, we are all finding our position very dicey indeed. And a worried lawyer is not a good lawyer. Reading the consultation paper makes for bleak reading indeed. Whilst Mr Grayling is fighting for a headline, we are fighting for our professional existence.

No-one owes me a living, I understand that. We all understand that, but we’re not asking for that, all we’re asking for is the chance to make a living doing the job that we love.

There are no more words…

KENT SOLICITOR, OLIVER KIRK’S LETTER TO KEITH VAZ ON THE DISASTROUS CONSEQUENCES OF PCT

This is a follow-up to Oliver Kirk’s recent blogpost on this site. (See below) The outburst of unity between our two professions that it gave rise to was unprecedented.

Oliver, also known as @kirkabout is a High Street solicitor and HCA in Kent. He has practised in Legal Aid crime, serving his local community for the last 15 years. He is a diligent, hard working, and conscientious solicitor, with a large client base and deservedly excellent reputation, like so many of his fellows who do the same work.

On 2nd May, Keith Vaz MP, chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, issued an open invitation on Twitter for anyone to send him examples of what will happen if the Government’s proposals on PCT are allowed to go ahead. So far it has had 240 retweets. This is Oliver Kirk’s response.

It is, to say the least, chilling.

We are grateful to him, and to Keith Vaz for taking up the fight on behalf of the UK Justice system.

Dear Mr Vaz

You recently asked on twitter for concrete examples of the effects that the Governments’ proposed introduction of competitive tendering will have on the Justice System.

I hope that I can help you understand the devastating consequences that those proposed reforms will wreak.

I have appended a link here to a letter that I wrote some time ago to my constituency MP Laura Sandys. I hope this sets out some of the concerns in a helpful manner.

However, over and above those, as time goes on, I have had further time to consider the effects of the proposed reforms.

It seems clear to me that those reforms will inevitably lead to the extinction of the publicy funded criminal justice system.

Here is why:

Should Price Competitive Tendering be introduced, then as the time for announcing the successful bidders nears, the various solicitors firms currently providing Criminal Defence work will be in an increasingly perilous financial position. It will, sooner or later become clear to their banks that overdraft facilities will have to be called in, which will cause those firms either to struggle significantly or to fail entirely.

The new model that the Government envisages is of large “superfirms”. It is envisaged that these may be formed by mergers and the like, but this conveniently ignores a vital question.

Why would any such “superfirm” want to take on the existing liabilities of smaller firms? The answer is that they will not.

Why should these large corporates take on the debts, liabilities, let alone employees of say the 10 firms of solicitors that they replace, when they will also immediately have to take on the burden of making the staff redundant, of buying its way out of contracts and leases of the buildings they occupy? They will not. They will wait for those firms to collapse in a mountain of debt, and then scavenge what is left, because the only thing that will matter to them is profit. As they will undoubtedly say, their first duty is to their shareholders.

If I am right, and this is so, the consequence is likely to be that as firms fail, and staff are made redundant, solicitors will go bankrupt – and consequently be restricted in their ability to practice.

What, while all this meltdown is happening, will become of the unfortunate “legally assisted person”, who might be on remand awaiting trial? What of the trials that may be aborted due to firms going out of business? Who is going to be in a position to take on these cases?

The Governments’ impact assessment into the proposed reforms makes passing reference to the fact that a number of firms of solicitors will close. The plan is that that number will be over 1000.

The impact of that has simply been glossed over. The impact upon the solicitors and their staff is obvious. The impact upon those they represent is potentially disastrous.

Imagine receiving this letter whist on remand:

“Dear Mr X

I regret to inform you that the solicitor that was previously assigned to represent you has now gone into liquidation. As a consequence, the fee earner and advocate who were dealing with your case will no longer be able to do so.

In view of the short time left before your trial and the amount of work that your new team have to do before trial, we are left with no alternative but to apply to the Court for an adjournment.

Yours etc”

What are the other consequences of the closure of a firm of solicitors? It is not merely a question of shutting down shutters and walking away. Records must of course be kept. Files must be kept for 6 years.

Professional indemnity insurance must continue to be paid for 7 years.

All of this is quite apart from other costs mentioned above, that are associated with the closure of any business.

It is important to bear in mind, when considering what are on any view, fundamental changes to the Criminal Justice System, that the amount that the Government seeks to save in these reforms is in fact very modest indeed.

The consequences both for Justice and for individuals will be massive.

Please bear in mind that once the system is broken, as it will be by these proposals, it will not be possible to put the genie back into the bottle. For the first time in my 15 plus years in the profession, people are talking of leaving. Leaving the country. Leaving the profession.

Both solicitors and barristers alike are frankly dismayed at the contempt with which the Government appears to view us, and the cynical way that it attempts to portray us in the media.

What are the consequences of a poorly funded and resourced Legal System? A decline in confidence in the Rule of Law. Citizens will feel that cases are both poorly prosecuted and defended. Guilty people will walk free, and the innocent convicted. If there is no confidence in the Rule of Law, Law and Order breaks down. People take the law into their own hands. They stop reporting crimes to the Police. They resort to vigilantism.

Law is the glue that holds society together. A Conservative Councillor recently said to me that he “objects to paying for others to use the legal system”.

Well, if tax payers do not pay for it, no one else will. If there is only Justice for the rich, that is no Justice at all.

That is why I object so strongly to these proposals, and why this is not (or should not be) a matter of party politics. This is a matter that strikes at the heart of our Country and which should concern each and every one of its’ citizens.

Thank you for your interest.

Oliver Kirk

Perspectives of a Law Student – QASA & BVT and the Students’ future at the Legal Aid Bar

Our thanks to Adam T Smith for this blog. Students are the future of our profession, and we are fighting to ensure that you have one. Your support is invaluable and your voice needs to be heard.

This quote from what follows, admirably sums up the message that should go out to Bar Standards, the MoJ and the General Public.

“But if I did work in legal aid, I wouldn’t want to be merely somebody’s idea of ‘competent’. I would want to have the opportunity to develop a reputation which speaks for itself on the basis of which people would choose to engage with me.”

I have been keenly following the progress of the ongoing debate (or should that be battle?) over the Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates and Best Value Tendering, first with fascination, and then with a degree of alarm. I hope to express my view as fully as possible on what the proposals of QASA and BVT mean to a law student at university.

I’ll start with a metaphor. A man is about to walk into a building. He is a few metres away from the entrance. Just as he is making his way up the path, the building catches fire. A blazing inferno which our man can only stand outside and watch. I cannot (and must not) speak for all law students, but that accurately sums up how I feel about my ambitions of practicing in criminal law (and more broadly, publically funded work). I’m standing outside watching the justice system combust, and thinking that, if I’d have been there much earlier, I would have been inside during the blaze.

I am coming to the end of my first year. First year has its advantages. I can enjoy the study of law with less pressure; I can develop responsibility, both living independently and working in a disciplined way, at an appropriate pace. Finally, I am best-placed to keep a keen eye on what is going on in the legal professions, and the justice system, so I can consider my future with full knowledge. Publically funded work is all I’ve ever wanted to do, right back from when I went to my Local Magistrates’ Court (now closed due to cuts) and watched defendants self-represent. As I have spent more time on shadowing placements, at the civil and family courts, I have seen litigants-in-person there too – it never seems to go well. Lawyers are important. Representation and advocacy are important. And this means having lawyers (both sorts) who strive to excel. That’s what sparked off my enthusiasm in the first place.

If I understand it correctly, QASA is going to make sure that lawyers will not strive to excel. It claims to assess competency. Do we really want advocates who are merely competent? Do we really want judges taking their eyes off the issues of the case to fill in forms and formally assess whether the advocates are competent or not? Constantly being assessed comes at a price for the practitioners too – time and money will be wasted on this. Baroness Deech has been quoted as saying that ‘most advocates will sail through it’ – if that is such a given, what is the point? Market forces surely already deselect the worst amongst the professions. A shoddy high street practice will not get any repeat business or word-of-mouth recommendation; an incompetent barrister will receive no instructions. So what need for QASA? Any article I’ve ever read on the subject comes up with only one – a badge of respectability.

A badge of respectability for whom? I have taken plenty of time to understand the basic principles of the Best Value Tendering proposals and what it might mean for the profession and I think I have a pretty good idea. The current proposals seek to severely cut down the numbers of law firms who can provide legal aid services. The contracts will be awarded to those who pledge to do the most (not best) work for the least money. Who is going to be able to put forward a competitive tender? Not the local firm on the high street, but the large corporations whose names have recently become mud amongst legal aid practitioners. And regardless of who gets these contracts, are they likely to want to eat into their scant profits by instructing counsel if they have a QASA-graded advocate in-house who can do a competent job in court for them? It seems unlikely. It seems unlikely that this QASA-graded advocate will get paid much, and will not be inclined to work 70 hours a week like some criminal barristers reportedly have to on a regular basis.

Ultimately, what will that mean for the quality of representation afforded to the defendant? Will there even be any quality? And if the defendant doesn’t trust their lawyer and wants a new one, he cannot change representatives except in ‘exceptional circumstances’ (whatever those are), because the lawyer he has is ‘competent’. “QASA says that he’s competent, so he is, and that means we’ve fulfilled our obligation to represent you” – says the Ministry of Justice. I am at a loss to understand how not having any choice about who represents you is just.

As a first year module I studied administrative law. I know one 30 credit module’s worth about Judicial Review, and even I could find grounds for reviewing QASA. Improper purpose (Grayling threatening to impose OCOF on crown court advocacy if the bar does not co-operate is one), failing to take into account relevant considerations, and the Article 6 right to a fair trial. I have it on good authority that Wednesbury unreasonableness never succeeds as a ground for review, but I’d throw that in there too! Abolishing justice for financial reasons sounds Wednesbury unreasonable to me.

So, what does this all mean for a first year law student? Legally aided work has been all I’ve ever wanted to do. But if I did work in legal aid, I wouldn’t want to be merely somebody’s idea of ‘competent’. I would want to have the opportunity to develop a reputation which speaks for itself on the basis of which people would choose to engage with me. I certainly don’t want to train with and work for an anonymous conglomerate which doesn’t know the value of justice. I want to learn from solicitors or barristers who do the work and take great pride its vocational element. Finally, I wouldn’t want to earn next to no money in return for £27,000 of university tuition debt (mine was the unlucky year), plus maintenance, plus a postgraduate vocational course. I think a graduate degree merits a graduate salary. I don’t expect to earn hundreds of thousands on legal aid. But I do expect to earn more than I could have got if I’d have walked into work, as a school leaver, without being saddled with the outrageous debt I know I’m accumulating.

So, to return to our man standing outside the burning building, he can but wait for the fire to be extinguished – or else for the entire building to burn to the ground. Then he will be faced by some very difficult weighing up exercises as to where he wants to take law next. I wish the CBA and all the solicitors affected the very best of luck in putting out that fire (and reasoning with the arsonists!). I had the good fortune to attend the CBA spring conference and I was deeply impressed by the depth of feeling and the strategies being employed by the CBA – I hope you all continue to do right and fear no-one.