We are delighted to be able to publish Mark George QC’s speech to the Lincoln’s Inn rally on Saturday, and are very grateful to him for providing us with the full version from his notes.
A well deserved standing ovation followed….
There will be some amongst the younger of you who will wonder how it ever came to this? That we are here on the one day of the week when we normally expect of bit of free time suggests that it must be something very important.
We are here now because we should have done this a long time ago. In the past when we got close to taking action we were sold out by our leaders who then took the Queen’s shilling and some of them are now on the High Court bench. They should be ashamed of themselves.
We tried talking to the Secretary of State but he wouldn’t even speak to Michael Turner throughout his time as Chair of the CBA. Then we wrote to him and in 16,000 consultation responses we completely demolished every argument he had put up in support of the cuts he proposed.
What was the response of the MoJ? We were give two options. The first proposal would cut trial fees by 20%. The alternative proposal would cut fees by 20%. It was like offering a man the choice of how he would be killed. He could choose to be shot or electrocuted but the result would be the same, he would be dead.
We have an awesome responsibility. Whether they are victims of crime or those accused of crime we are the ones who ensure cases are properly prosecuted and properly defended. We ensure that the rule of law applies and that those accused of crime get what they are entitled to namely due process of law, a fair trial.
You should remember that the Guildford 4 would still be in prison today of it hadn’t been for all the hard work done by a solicitor on legal aid who eventually found the hidden alibi notice that lead to them being proved innocent.
So what do we do? It seems to me that we have two choices. There is what I will call the Des Hudson option. I have heard Des Hudson speak several times and it is never a happy experience. His option is to do nothing and accept defeat.
Or we take action and show that we are serious about defending legal aid and show them that they cannot run the courts without us.
Let me take first the Des Hudson option. I have here a report written in January 1995 as a result of a visit to Texas by two members of the bar on behalf of the BHRC, namely Philip Sapsford Q.C. and David Marshall. They were shocked at what they found. In a series of cases they found that the lawyers in capital cases were paid just a few dollars an hour. And what do you think was the consequence of that? The consequence was that the good lawyers want nothing to do with capital cases and capital defendants are left to be represented by those who cannot get any other work. So they are represented by those who have previously been struck off by the State Bar association, those who have a drug addiction or are alcoholics, those who are fresh out of Bar school and have never done a criminal trial much less a capital one and even by lawyers who could not stay awake during their client’s trial.
I have spent my entire career in legal aid work and I am not prepared to see that system destroyed and I will not let that happen without at least having a damn good fight.
The resolution on which you are asked to vote proposes that we withdraw our labour. I call it a strike but I understand that others of a more delicate disposition may not want to call it that. We can call it the teddy bears’ picnic for all I care but we must do it.
My preference is for a day of action on a day each week for several weeks or for a series of days. We should start on a Tuesday so the courts can begin the trials and then we don’t work on the Tuesday or the Wednesday or the Thursday and if there is a plea list worth doing we can go back to work on the Friday.
We will give them notice, not much but enough so that they can ensure that jurors and vulnerable witnesses need not turn up and are not inconvenienced but there will be no applications to vacate. We are not asking for the judges’ permission to strike we are simply informing them that we intend to.
It doesn’t have to be unanimous but it does need a critical core. If 10 people take action they will be disciplined but if 500 take action they cannot all be disciplined. We saw that in the Manchester action organised by Tony Cross. Tony had no idea how many people would turn up but in the end about 400 did and not a single one was disciplined although one or two judges got a bit twitchy in the end they backed off.
Action should be linked to mass meetings so that no one feels isolated on their own at home not knowing what everyone else is doing. If possible we should combine action with the Probation Service. Their fight is our fight. If the court staff take action we should support them because unity is strength.
We should have delegations on each circuit to the resident judges to explain what we are doing and to demand that they support us. They have their own fight with the government and they should support us or at least not get in our way. They need us because we keep the courts running smoothly. We should also make it clear that we will not tolerate any repercussions against any barrister who takes action. No barrister will be disciplined and we don’t expect any judge to try to do so. If they do that will lead to an escalation of the action and the BSB ought to take note.
I appreciate that for some of you this may sound radical. It is radical. We are in a radical situation and it calls for radical measures.
We may be backed up against the wall and we may be running out of ammunition but it’s time to fix bayonets because we are not going to go down without a fight.
If you don’t agree with this then you need to come up with a pretty good alternative because we must fight and we must do it now. I commend the resolution to you.