To the bar(ricades)

I am penning these thoughts on the day that lawyers up and down the country are staging protests about the latest government proposals to continue the process that has been ongoing for many years – namely, to cut the legal aid budget.

I took up law in the 1970’s when legal aid was widely available for all types of civil and criminal cases. My perception then, as a ‘neutral’ public servant in the court service, was that by and large the system worked well. Lawyers were paid reasonable, but not excessive sums for the work they actually did. There were some who’s incompetence and let’s not be shy of saying it, dishonesty, spoiled it for the majority of hard working practitioners and this clearly had a corrosive effect on the minds of the powers that be. Over the years, other factors came into play which led to an increase in the legal aid budget, driven almost exclusively by the ever increasing demand for lawyers’ services. Examples are; the passage of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1986, the Human Rights Act 1998 and the appallingly drafted, Equality Act 2010. On top of that came the excessive codification of Criminal and Civil Procedure Rules, numerous protocols and guidance, alternative dispute resolution and goodness knows what else.

So in the face of these burdens on lawyers, the foreseeable results of which would be increased demand on their services, an increase in workload and thus, God forbid, pay. What did successive governments do? Rather than make adequate provision or deal with the obvious inefficiencies manifest in Her Majesty’s so called Court Service and the Crown Prosecution Service, it decided to attack the demand. Divert more people away from the courts. Give burglars cautions, increase and impose court and tribunal fees and make it too expensive to issue divorce proceedings and magic, we don’t need lawyers any more! Cuts achieved and we can all do something else. Well that is just what lawyers are doing. Most coming into the profession (and yes it is still just about worthy of that description) will have nothing to do with anything that is remotely dependent, directly or indirectly, on pubic funding. It’s the UK version of US healthcare folks. We are already seeing the inevitable consequence – the rise of the litigant in person, the dumbing down of standards of advocacy and lo and behold, learned counsel taking to the barricades. Mind you, it’s good for the local pub, which incidentally is where I was offered my first job in law. Now that’s a call to the bar that is still worthwhile!

by Steve McGregor from the Wisbech office