Ian West, a former member of the CBA executive, sets out his reasons why he will be voting for more action and to reject the MoJ deal.
The CBA’s decision, on 26th March, to call off the industrial action in return for Grayling’s offer to shelve the cuts to the AGFS until 2015, and to enter into talks about the VHCC regime, was in my view, entirely the wrong decision, short-sighted and unnecessary.
We have allowed Mr Grayling, who was ‘on the ropes’, to divide and rule us. ‘Us’ in this context means, first of all, 41 fellow criminal practitioners who courageously blazed a trail for the CBA by taking direct action on 2nd December, returning their briefs when, at that point, the criminal Bar had never taken direct action, and they could not have known whether it ever would. Their courage was an example to us all, and we should not underestimate the value to the rest of us of the step they took. Grayling did not believe – probably because he was badly advised – that barristers would ever ‘go on strike’ but those 41 did. And because they did, Grayling took seriously our threat to refuse to do AGFS cases if the pay for those was cut. Our thanks to those 41 was to say “Well, we’ve sorted out a deal that spares the remainder of us who only do AGFS cases. Good luck with your own small battle.” That was intolerable.
Why did we feel the need to take Grayling’s first offer? He was running scared, and in no position to dictate terms: “This is only on the table until Friday. Take it or else” Or else what? WE were the ones who held the whip hand. We could have demanded, as the price of calling off the direct action, at the very least, the restoration of VHCC rates as well as a stay (which is all it is) in relation to AGFS. He would have had no choice but to agree. The undertaking to review the VHCC scheme makes it plain that that will take place within the current budget: i.e. the 30% cut will remain. It is rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Worse, it may set an unwelcome precedent for the review of the AGFS in 2015.
I say “at the very least” because even that would have been a disastrously bad deal for the criminal Bar in the longer term. I am talking about, of course, our abandonment of the solicitors’ profession. In 2007, I was part of the Bar Council’s Carter negotiating team, and at the time, we thought we had done a very good deal on behalf of the Bar, compared with the settlement negotiated by the Law Society for solicitors. We (the BC team) simply did not foresee what would happen next – that solicitors, who of course get the client in through their door first – would see the AGFS as the way of making up the shortfall caused by their move to the LGFS. As we all know, the result has been an explosion of in-house solicitor-advocates, decimating the work available for the junior Bar.
It would be a mistake not to learn the lesson from the Carter settlement. If Grayling is permitted, by his cynical divide and rule tactic, to fracture the unity with solicitors, and to push through his dual contracts scheme for solicitors, we will be throwing to the wolves our last remaining defence customers – the small high-street firms for whom it is not economically viable to employ in-house advocates. In Grayling’s brave new world, the only firms to survive at the rates he will pay will be the BFG firms, providing a ‘pile it high, sell it cheap’ service. These firms don’t use the Bar now; they certainly won’t in the future, and there won’t BE anyone else to use us.
The simple fact of the matter is that if the solicitors are not – for whatever reason – capable of fighting their own battle over dual contracts, then we must fight it for them. We, the Bar, cannot allow them to fail. They are our customers, our ‘human shield’, our ‘food chain’, whatever you will. WE NEED THEM. We need to fight WITH the solicitors, in our interests as well as theirs. We have demonstrated that we possess the industrial muscle to force Grayling’s hand. He has demonstrated his weakness. We must demand that he restores the status quo ante for both professions, and shelves ALL of the cuts, pending a ‘new deal, Carter2-type settlement’. Vote ‘YES’ to reject ‘the deal’ and to restore the campaign of direct action.
Ian West, Fountain Chambers, Middlesbrough.