With the ballot deadline fast approaching I am becoming ever more uncertain about my vote. I have followed the sometimes robust debate on Twitter, I have seen the war of words and ideologies flow, the conspiracy theories arise and then subside again. And I still don’t know which way to vote.
On the one hand, I genuinely believe that the Chairman of the CBA and his team have worked long, hard and with real integrity to represent the interests of the Criminal Bar. We could not have had finer leaders for our branch of the profession. On the other, I wonder they have fallen at the final hurdle, and succumbed to pressure most of us would have found hard to resist. I have a strong suspicion that there has been a “sub-deal” brokered by the Bar Council, who may well have added to the pressure the CBA have had to deal with. It is only suspicion, but my impression of the Chairman of the Bar, having met him less than a week before the deal was announced, was that he was a man desperate to negotiate his way through the minefield rather than stand shoulder to shoulder with his Criminal Bar colleagues. Whatever admirable qualities the members of the Bar Council have, I have always believed that long term self-interest is their motivation, and after nearly 30 years at the Bar I believe that I am entitled to say that based upon all that I have seen. I have no such reservations of the leadership of the CBA.
I have been something of a rabble rouser over the last twelve months, constantly urging others, lawyers and non-lawyers, to look at the arguments, to understand the unfairness of the system to those without whom the system could not operate, to ensure as many people as possible signed the petition, responded to the consultations, stood on the picket lines. But throughout all that, what I was fighting for was not the money, however angry I am at repeated fee cuts over my professional life time, the increasing amount of wok I am expected to do for absolutely no remuneration. Money is of course important, to ask for a decent fee for a hard day’s work is nothing for any of us to be ashamed about. My fight has been for Justice, and yes, Justice with a capital J.
I was brought up in the safe and certain knowledge that if I should ever need a lawyer, one would be there. Not just anyone, but someone who would be there for me, to represent me, to advise me, to help me, if I were ever in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and did something questionable. That if my father were to be accused of an allegation of historic sexual abuse, he would be represented by someone of integrity, and ability, whose only aim would be ensuring he received a fair trial and that a jury would fairly and fully consider the evidence against him, and in his favour. That if my nephew were ever to be the victim of crime, he would be cross examined, again, by someone of ability, who showed courtesy and respect towards him, whilst still putting their lay client’s case in as robust a manner as necessary. That if my niece’s BME best friend wanted to come to the bar, the only impediment would be a lack of ability rather than a lack of resources. My career is in its second half, it has been a good career, one in which I think I have made a positive difference, to many people. I want as many other people as possible to have the opportunity to do the same.
That is Justice with a capital J. The intangible that we have all taken for granted our entire lives, and had expectations that generations to come will be able to have the same complacency. So while I am grateful for the deal, and the ring-fencing of AGFs for 18 months, it is not about the money for me. But nor is it about fighting a battle for the solicitors, who have stood by and watched, year on year, as our fees have been steadily reduced, and have happily got their HCA certification to ensure that the living to be made at the Criminal Bar has steadily declined further. It is equally misleading to say that this is a fight for the future of the junior bar – they saw the writing on the wall long before the senior juniors. They have voted with their feet, have pursued other career options, or kept their practices as diverse as possible.
The ballot, with its stark question, yes or no, does not reflect what I have been fighting for, or what I believe in. And yet, I must make a choice. Vote No, to accept the deal, and hope that the promise of looking again at the need to make cuts, the promise not to boost the manpower of the PDS, and the hope that everything will just be kicked into the long grass in 14 months’ time. Vote Yes, to continue the fight, to continue to have a legitimate platform upon which to argue for Justice, but risk OCOF and a further influx of HCAs doing the only thing they can to absorb the financial cuts already imposed on them.
A choice, but Hobson’s choice. I would not wish to stifle debate, but some to the Tweets and posts in support of both sides of the argument have not been helpful, amounting to little more than rude dismissal of the arguments of the other side. We are better than that, and are certainly bright enough to decide our own vote without being lobbied. I will vote, and facts will help me decide. Not the opinions of others, I am getting rather fed up of those. It is to that I say “A plague on both your houses”.