Today a ballot of the membership of the CBA has begun. The ballot will expire at 6pm on Wednesday 9th April 2014. There is no issue more important, more deserving of informed debate and a full turn out. The answer to the ballot will shape both CBA policy and the landscape of the criminal bar for years to come.
The CBA blog is a place where opinions can be expressed, be they coming from the Chairman of the CBA to a pupil just starting upon their career. During the next week I hope to post as many views as possible upon this blog, so as to inform and educate the debate which is taking place. Views can be posted with your name appended, or anonymously if you so wish. They can be in favour of the proposals or speaking against them. What is important is that views are heard. Please email any submissions for the blog to firstname.lastname@example.org .
What follows is the response to the deal by the leaders of the CBA and Circuit Leaders:
1. The Government’s ‘Next Steps’ Consultation asked a narrow question about which of two schemes, both involving significant further cuts to AGFS, should be imposed. The virtually unanimous response of the profession was that neither scheme was fair and that there should be no further cuts to AGFS.
2. The VHCC 30% cut was implemented by Parliament in November. The magnitude of the cut, and the manner of its imposition were such that perhaps unsurprisingly, barristers elected not to work at the new rates.
3. In the impasse that was developing between the profession and the Government, the bar demanded that the proposed cuts to AGFS should at least be postponed pending the reviews to be carried out by Sir Bill Jeffrey and Leveson LJ.
4. The Government refused. At the end of February it announced the outcome of the consultation. Apart from some very minor concessions, universally regarded by the bar as inadequate, there was a refusal by the Government to heed any of the arguments of substance that we had individually and collectively advanced.
5. We did not accept the refusal. The protest of the bar continued and was magnified. In the meantime, and after inadequate notice, changes that we believe are damaging to the solicitors’ profession were implemented on the 20 March.
6. The proposed cuts to AGFS would, we were told, be implemented on 1 July. We repeatedly asked that the assessment of the need for those cuts and the effect of their implementation be postponed until after Jeffrey and Leveson had reported. This had been our published position for some time.
7. Eventually, last week, the Government acceded to our demand. Further the postponement is in fact to be not only post the two reviews, but also post the election and not before the summer of 2015.
8. So we have not accepted that there should be any cuts to AGFS. The postponement should not be taken to imply that we have. We intend to work with the Government (or its successor) in considering the need for and impact of any proposed cuts in the light of the conclusions or recommendations from Jeffery and Leveson and in the light of an holistic study of advocacy fees, including proper research into their history. The Government has promised to work at this process with an ‘open mind’. We will be submitting that an upward adjustment of fees will be justified and necessary.
9. As to VHCC, we have consistently and repeatedly pointed out to the Government that when the fees become derisory there is a risk that practitioners will not undertake that work. There can be no objection in principle by us if barristers choose to undertake VHCC at the cut rates. But just as we were not in a position to tell individual barristers not to work at the cut VHCC rates, so we are not in a position to tell them now to do so. It was and remains a matter of individual choice.
10. Having asked the Government to defer any AGFS cuts until after the reviews, when the Government eventually agreed to do so we took the view that they had acceded to the demand that we had made.
11. Initially we were asked to agree to the course proposed without consulting our members. We refused. We insisted that the CBA Chair and Vice-Chair should be allowed to consult with the CBA Executive, and the Circuit Leaders with their Heads of Chambers/Crime Team leaders on circuit. The Government gave way. This was something of a retreat and from a political point of view we could well understand why the Government would wish to manage the announcement rather than have it released by individuals on social media.
12. The consultation took place. The CBA Executive, and five of the six Circuits supported the proposal. The Northern Circuit did not.
13. We communicated that response to the Government.
14. We reject the notion that we have done the solicitors’ profession a disservice. In fact about 30% of AGFS work is carried out by HCAs. We are not party to the negotiations taking place on behalf of solicitors, nor can we organise them. It is not in our interests to abandon those solicitors who are working to preserve the system in which both branches of the profession believe. So we will continue to do what we properly can to support the opposition to dual contracts, the reduction in contract numbers, and the further proposed cuts.
15. It is important to understand that the bar’s action of No Returns and Days of Action has not been abandoned as part of any ‘deal’. It has been suspended while the Government do what we asked them to do.
16. In the meantime the situation that has been reached allows for the building of a constructive working relationship between the bar and the Ministry of Justice so that we may work together to best ensure the future of the profession in the public interest.
Nigel Lithman QC Chair CBA
Tony Cross QC Vice-Chair CBA
Sarah Forshaw QC Leader South Eastern
Mark Wall QC Leader Midland
Andrew O’Byrne QC Leader Northern
Paul Lewis QC Leader Wales & Chester
John Elvidge QC Leader North Eastern
Andrew Langdon QC Leader Western