It is not quite correct to call yesterday’s meeting by barristers on the Northern Circuit a strike, but it was certainly symptomatic of anger across the whole criminal legal profession.
The Ministry of Justice’s “consultation” paper on proposed changes to criminal legal aid has achieved in two weeks what for two centuries was unimaginable: the unity of criminal solicitors and barristers. Both are disgusted at what is seen as an attempt to sacrifice our criminal legal system in order to save £220M, a trivial sum of money in the context of the £2 billion pound legal aid budget. And anyone with experience of the shambles caused by the MoJ’s more modest “reform” of court interpreting services will be profoundly cynical of the claim that these plans will save any money at all.
The “consultation” is explicit and breathtaking in some of its aims. Criminal solicitors’ firms are to be decimated. Only 34 criminal legal aid contracts are to be allowed for the whole of London. Kent will be allowed 5, Wiltshire 4, and so it goes on. And there is no reason why one firm should not hold more than one or, in theory even all those contracts. If it happens that will be the end of the High Street criminal practice. They will be hoovered up by huge companies, the only ones that will be able to survive in the new environment.
It is hard to see how the Criminal Bar would survive either. After a cynical PR exercise in which Chris Grayling absurdly compared barristers’ earnings to the Prime Minister’s salary, deep within the “consultation” we find the government’s own estimate that 65% of criminal barristers already receive less than £50,000 annually. Allowing for expenses this equates to less than £37,500 a year. The plans will ensure that there is virtually no prospect of any barrister ever earning significantly more. No sensible person will spend years acquiring huge debts in order to earn such sums.
Money will be saved, says Mr Grayling, by creating economies of scale and encouraging the earliest possible guilty pleas. Any barrister unable to persuade his clients to plead guilty will soon feel it in his threadbare and heavily patched pocket. If this sounds rather chilling to an innocent man crying in his cell, he should shut up and plead guilty: the longer he protests his innocence the less profitable he will be to the conglomerate meant to be helping him.
Lady Thatcher, a qualified barrister, chose the words “Cherish Freedom” as her personal motto. The political pygmies who see themselves as her heirs intend to trash one of the most important freedoms: to defend oneself with a free choice of counsel.
Anyone who truly cherishes freedom will fight these plans with the ferocity of Maggie in her pomp.