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Stephen Knight on The Final Glorious Days of the Bar

I am a junior criminal barrister. I am a tenant at a central London chambers. I am terrified that by this time next year I won’t have a job to speak of. I am not the only one.

I have lost count of the number of friends I have heard despair, often entirely break down, over whether they have a future at the bar. Each one of us at the junior end of the profession has friends who genuinely wonder whether they can pay the bills this month. Whether they can pay the rent. Whether they can buy food. So many colleagues have moved in with partners or back in with parents because they could not afford to live on their own, on the wages of what should be a well-remunerated profession. So many former colleagues have already left the profession to which they had dedicated their lives. Rates of stress, depression, and anxiety at the junior bar are terrifying, and ever increasing.

This is a bleak background. It is the result of a history of failures on the part of the leadership of our profession. There is no reason that the experience of the junior bar needs to be like this, other than a lack of care on the part of those who have for years negotiated for us. But the situation threatens to get even worse.

Dual contracts will kill the junior bar. There are no two ways about it. It will bankrupt most, if not all, of your instructing solicitors. 1,600 contracts down to 527 contracts (not firms: contracts – some firms will have more than one contract) will mean thousands of redundancies, a market in chaos, and traditional loyalties between chambers and firms cast to the wind. When dual contracts are combined with the 8.75% LGFS cut, those solicitors’ firms which survive the dual contracts massacre will be obliged to take advocacy work in house in order to continue to bring in the fees which previously came from LGFS. Maybe you will be one of the lucky survivors of the resulting bonfire of the bar, taken on as in-house counsel at a warehouse firm. Don’t count on it though: mega firms will have no incentive to take on barristers rather than HCAs, who are already trained in litigation and won’t have ideas above their station about running the organisation in which they work. More likely you will be on the scrapheap, your career development loan weighing you down as you retrain as a teacher, bank manager, or estate agent. You will have been the last of a dying breed. It will be a story to tell the grandchildren. The final glorious days of the bar will fade into a distant, bittersweet memory.

This scenario is avoidable. But it can be avoided in only one way. We must fight. This is an industrial struggle, between a government that needs a service, and a workforce of barristers who are the only people who can provide that service. If we withdraw our goodwill, and then withdraw our labour, we render the criminal justice system inoperable. The fact that we have not, that for 20 years we have endured nothing but cuts, is a scandal of which the leaders of our profession should be ashamed. The fact that the CBA leadership paints this as a struggle over solicitors’ fees, rather than our own existence, shows just how out of touch with their own profession they truly are. They say that this fight should be for the solicitors, and that the solicitors should have done more earlier, so the bar should not fight now. That makes as much sense as refusing to fight a house fire on the ground that your landlord should have taken better steps to fireproof the building. We are where we are now. We fight or we die.

The CBA leadership trots out a new circuit leader every day to tell you that everything will be fine if you just trust them. Their highly paid (with your membership subscriptions) propaganda machine pushes the CBA leadership line to reinforce this. But where have these leaders been over the last 20 years of cuts? How have they allowed the bar to get into such a state? And how can they claim to be leaders of their circuits and of the bar when they strive so hard to claim there is no appetite for action, even as action is breaking out throughout the country?

When they say, “trust me”, ask them, “why?” When you have allowed the rates of pay at the bar to fall so far. When I cannot afford my train fare to get to court. When I have to consider at the end of every month whether I can stick at this job into which I have poured my heart and soul. When I have seen not the slightest benefit from your endless negotiating. When you think that a delay to a cut in AGFS fees is a win. When you would never consider fighting for better pay. When you have the gall to suggest that an already expired dodgy Deal binds us never to fight again. Why should I trust you?

Don’t trust them. Give a mandate for action they cannot again shamefully ignore as they ignored the 96% in the last ballot. For your jobs, for your colleagues, and for your clients, please vote “yes”.

Stephen Knight
Mansfield Chambers
CBA Committee representative for under 7 years call (personal capacity)

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