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The Walk-out and the Public’s Perception of the Bar

The Walk-out and the Public’s Perception of the Bar

Here is an example of a typical conversation I have had with an exasperating number of friends:

Friend: “So what are you up to these days?”
Me: “I’m still studying actually, I’m doing the Bar Professional Training Course now.”
Friend: “The what? I thought you wanted to be a lawyer?”
Me: “I do. I want to be a barrister, not a solicitor, so I’m doing the BPTC rather than the LPC.”
Friend: “Oh… so what does a barrister do then?”
Me: “[Gives a brief, rehearsed explanation]”
Friend: “Oh… well I’ll bet you make lots of money once you’ve qualified.”
Me: “Er…”

Usually the discussion then takes a turn in a direction that involves some padded out explanation of the precarious financial situation facing many barristers, let alone those that haven’t yet obtained pupillage. By the end, it becomes less of a talk on what I’m doing with my life at this moment in time and more – surprisingly – a deeply penetrating soul-searching exercise.

The more often I have this conversation the more convincing I become (to myself, anyway) that I am still doing the right thing, which I take as a good sign. But when one looks at the bigger picture it can be seen as a small manifestation of how many members of the public still view lawyers and the justice system. Popular images remain of theatrical courtrooms occupied by white men in wigs and black robes, complete with posh accents, big incomprehensible textbooks and high fees.

Some effort, and indeed some progress, has been made on the issue of diversity amongst lawyers and judges (although none whatsoever has been made on the issue of big incomprehensible textbooks). But the well-engrained idea of the invariably wealthy lawyer was the common trend among readers’ comments on the Daily Mail’s website when an article was written about the proposed strikes by barristers and solicitors. These proposals became the walk-out witnessed on Monday. As many of the comments reveal (usefully summarised here by Legal Cheek: http://www.legalcheek.com/2013/11/daily-mail-readers-hatred-of-criminal-barristers-explored), there is still a widely-held belief that all lawyers work in a lucrative profession, and therefore deserve little sympathy when it comes to government cuts to public funding and legal aid.

This state of affairs has not been improved by the Ministry of Justice’s decision to release some dubious figures claiming that in excess of 1,200 barristers received £100,000 in fees last year, while six earned over £500,000.

The truth, of course, is very different from what the government would have you believe and has led to Dr Tom Smith, lecturer in law at Plymouth University, to describe the MoJ’s unprecedented move of publicising barristers’ earnings as ‘a new low’ (http://www.legalfutures.co.uk/blog/criminal-barristers-earnings-new-low-government-strategy). The vast majority of barristers are self-employed and therefore in addition to tax have to deduct for expenses and essentials such as pensions, chambers’ rents, clerks’ fees, books, wigs, gowns, travel, and otherwise non-existent sick pay and holiday pay. A popular comparison amongst criminal barristers is that many will earn less than a plumber for at least the first ten years of call.

Then, of course, the timing of the release of these figures needs to be considered. Why now, when so-called ‘public interest’ has never demanded it before? The only believable explanation is a deliberately calculated move by the government, made to perpetuate the idea of rich lawyers unjustly claiming unfair treatment when it comes to cuts and therefore undeserving of any sympathy.

And, unfortunately, it sometimes works. The photo of Monday’s strikes featuring a group of wigged and robed barristers outside the Old Bailey in protest was seized upon by the Daily Mail as ‘the most privileged picket line ever’ (here: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2534669/Thousands-barristers-walk-protest-plans-slash-220m-legal-aid-budget.html?ico=home%5Eheadlines) as one had turned up clutching a handbag apparently worth over £1,000.

The whole depressing situation was best summed up by Jonathan Jones in the Guardian (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jan/07/protesting-barristers-case-streets-satire-legal-aid):

There seems every reason to fear that people will be denied justice as a result of the government’s cuts to legal aid. There is also a perfectly rational case why top barristers should make good money – yet while this government respects the moneymaking rights of bankers whose talents are distinctly questionable, it is happy to steal the “fatcat” rhetoric to undermine public servants of any kind. The law profession resorts to pointing out that many lawyers earn a lot less than the public might imagine – but no one is ever going to believe law is anything but a potentially remunerative career. Presumably the real problem is that if you stop public work from paying, the most in-demand (i.e. best) lawyers will specialise in profitable commercial fields instead. Why not just make this clear? Unfortunately much public debate in modern Britain is hamstrung by point scoring doublespeak.

Of course, the problem is not limited to the fact that the best lawyers will seek more lucrative work. Among other things, there is also the issue of having access to the best representation possible from whoever works for you. If your barrister is poorly paid they may become more concerned with where the next brief is coming from than they are about your case.

I refuse to believe the Bar is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. Up until Monday, it seemed as though the extent of protests to the government’s attitude to legal aid and publicly funded work in general from barristers and judges had been defending and extolling the many virtues of the Bar in speeches and articles to a limited audience, and eloquently but quietly, submitting responses to consultations.

More needs to be done to express publicly in the strongest terms why cuts to legal aid are so disastrous. The role of barristers in a fair, just and democratic society needs to be more widely known. The way barristers carry out this function needs to be made clearer. More realistic figures need to be published and publicised, reflecting the true nature of a barrister’s typical earnings at various stages of their career. There also needs to be unequivocal, honest discussion as to what further action must be taken to demonstrate the dangers of a poorly-funded legal aid system.

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