Once again this weekend we have seen the “fat cat” story appear in our press. This time it appeared as an “exclusive” in the Sun. This story is about as exclusive as an exposé that repeats the “fact” that Carlsberg is probably the best lager in the world and that a Mars a day has significant benefits in the areas of work, rest and play. One cannot help but wonder about the timing of this story.
People who are involved with the criminal justice system know the fallacy of this story. Even Chris Grayling. In a meeting with local lawyers in Manchester he assured us he would never call a legal aid lawyer a fat cat. He told his colleagues at their party conference that he realised legal aid lawyers were suffering pain. Such a shame that his ministry publishes the figures that lead to such conclusions without ever going on to explain the truth. Grayling knows that vast riches are not being garnered from Legal Aid work, hence his recent desire to point out that we all supplement our income from other areas and private payers (if he finishes being Lord Chancellor he is welcome to apply for a clerks job in my chambers so he can introduce me to this rich seam of untapped wealth.)
It scarcely requires me to point out the fact that the figures of the top earners represent fees that may reflect work undertaken over a number of years, that these figures do not represent the personal income of those involved or that these figures often include VAT so start out as skewed. Unfortunately such misinformation perpetuates the myth that lawyers are raking in amounts vastly in excess of that paid to the Prime Minister (a sleight of hand only achieved by downplaying the cost to the taxpayer of the PM and upgrading the cost of counsel) and more than the Judges who counsel appear before (ignoring the rush to fill every judicial vacancy that comes along).
What consistently amazes me is that these figures are used to justify cuts to fees across the board, as if every fee cut is only impacting upon some QC who is overcoming the rise in domestic energy bills by burning £20 notes in the open fireplace of his or her manor house. And that the QC is paid these extortionate sums because they bill the taxpayer for the hours spent on the golf course at some eye watering hourly rate.
So, let me deal here with two fallacies that particularly get my goat.
The first misconception is that barristers have any means of inflating their fees. Or guaranteeing their income will rise year on year. Or even guaranteeing an income year after year. We rely upon our ability to attract work and then are paid in a way which gives the administration complete control.
The way a barrister is paid is by the case. The total income of those most busy is not the benchmark by which to decide the appropriate rate for the work undertaken. The fees should reflect the work involved in the preparation of the case which is often governed by the complexity of the case and its comparative seriousness. And those fees, in the main, are completely fixed. We must be one of the few professions where someone of a year post qualification gets paid the same as someone twenty years post qualification for undertaking the same piece of work. But that is how it works. We get paid per piece at a fixed rate. A rate fixed by government. It is both illogical and unfair for those fees to go down. The work has not become easier, less complex or less taxing. Let us centre the debate on appropriate remuneration for doing the case upon which you are instructed. That’s the way we are paid, that is the way it should be discussed.
The second thing is that the cuts are not going to impact only on the banknote-burning-barrister. In fact it is not going to impact only on lawyers. I, in conjunction with other members of my chambers, employ staff. Solicitors employ even more staff. Receptionists, officer managers, clerks, IT people, secretaries and cleaners. So when cuts come along the government are not cutting the wages of the lawyers. They are cutting the payment to a business. So the business has to cut its overheads. And the overheads cut first are staff overheads. So wages are cut. People are made redundant. But they are not all going to be fat cat lawyers. Many of them will be the decent hardworking taxpayers that the government are always quoting as being the people they seek to protect by imposing the cuts.
I am not saying that lawyers are not seeing income levels plummet. I am not saying that this does not have an impact on access to justice and quality. What I am saying is that it is not all about the lawyers. There have been many casualties of legal aid cuts amongst non-lawyers. There will be more to come if these cuts continue.
So the true story is not about fat cat lawyers, the real exposé would get to the truth. The truth is about proper remuneration for each case done. The truth is about payments being made to businesses, not individuals. The truth is about solicitors being at the heart of communities providing assistance and employment. However you will never find that truth in an MOJ press release.