When I came to the Bar I hoped for a glittering career. I have always been suspicious of any barrister who does not begin their career with a hope of obtaining Silk. It takes such a tremendous quantity of confidence and self-belief to take to your feet for the first time it can only be a life which those who believe that they can be the very best would embark upon.
The extent to which my aspirations have been held back consequent upon my ability is not for discussion here and at least some of my confidence can remain intact, even if it is misleadingly so. However the time has come now, 20 years in, whereby my fears are not where my career will go but when it will end.
In recent times both The Lord Chancellor and the The Attorney-General have expressed the view that there are too many barristers. It would seem to be the case that they are linking this to a reduction in the level of fees paid in each individual case. My contention is that the number of barristers is not a matter for Government, and my instinct would be that it is certainly not a matter for a Conservative Government. Surely a Tory administration would welcome open competition between individuals who are engaged according to their ability?
Leaving political persuasion to one side, I find it remarkable that the level of fees is being used as a tool by the administration to thin out the number of barristers. At the outset of the PCT consultation the Badger cull was metaphorically referred to. This is now a more direct comparison. The Bar are being culled. Remuneration is the lethal device of choice.
The reasons why this is wrong are palpable. Not one word of either of the consultations refer to fee cuts being wielded as the executioner wields his axe when it comes to the Bar. The case for cuts is made out on the basis of economic need. The longer this goes on, the more I am convinced that the cuts are motivated by ideology. Economic difficulties have given the Government the opportunity to pare down the numbers of pesky lawyers.
Why is it any business of the Government how many barristers there are? When we are not working we cost the taxpayer precisely nothing. When a criminal lawyer is required barristers are available to advise and represent. We are an army of specialists and locums available without being on the payroll or representing a pension burden.
To prove the point I will rely upon this quote “if I were running a business and I had the choice between a group of people on my payroll, National Insurance, pension contribution, who I had to pay come rain or shine, who I had to pay whilst on holiday and all the rest…. Or I could use a team of experienced freelancers I’d go for the experienced freelancer every time”. Not my words but the words of Chris Grayling. So why does he want to reduce the number in the team of the experienced freelancers?
Fees for cases should be set at a rate which represents fair remuneration for the work undertaken. It seems that implicit in the uttering of Grayling and Grieve that they acknowledge the rates will be fixed at a level that only members of the Bar with extensive diaries can survive. Which is great news for anyone hoping to divide their time between their family and their career. And gives little hope to those yet to carve out their own practice. This is not a series of cuts aimed at fat cats. This is a cull which will come for the scrawny cats first. Oh, and by the way, I can only really do one trial at a time. So I would like to be paid appropriately for the work which it involves.
Let there be no mistake. Not only are the Bar right to fear we cannot survive further cuts to our remuneration but we should now fear that is the intended consequence of the proposed cuts. A fan of conspiracies may view this as sinister in the context of a Government that seems intent on reducing or removing the ability of the citizen to challenge the State. I do not know about that. But I do know one thing – the Bar and the opportunity for people of ability to become part of the Bar are things worth fighting for.
We should not sit back and simply accept cuts. This is about each of us fighting to preserve our existence. In War of the Worlds, HG Wells described man’s initial failure to react to the Martian invasion in these terms “So some respectable dodo […] might have lorded it in his nest, and discussed the arrival of that shipful of pitiless sailors in want of animal food. ‘We will peck them to death tomorrow, my dear’.”
Fighting the cuts is not to oppose austerity. The Bar are not the latest public servants to experience cuts. We were at the vanguard of the cuts. Now it is about each individual taking responsibility for taking action against the proposals. The stated intention of the Government is to put you out of business. Do not be a dodo. Start pecking back. NOW.