As a very young barrister I did not own a car. So the first months of being on my feet in court involved a lot of travel by public transport. One day I was due to appear in Liverpool to conduct a mention. This coincided with a rail strike. A limited service was running which thankfully included a direct train from my local station to Liverpool. As I waited on the platform it was announced that this train had also been cancelled. So I did not think twice about jumping in a cab and spending £50 on the fare to Liverpool. Despite it being 20 years ago I still recall the cost of the fare because I only received £46.50 for doing the case. A loss of £3.50 before I had even stepped inside the courtroom.
So why am I telling you this? I am telling you this because on 6th January I am not going to go to court because I am joining a legion of lawyers who are protesting about the chronic underfunding of the criminal justice system. I am telling you this because it demonstrates that I do not fail to go to court lightly. I have gone the extra mile to attend court in the past at personal expense. I have prosecuted a case on a day that I had to lie on a conference room table in between appearances in court because I was in so much pain and was admitted to hospital the following day. I have gone to a relative’s funeral during the lunchtime adjournment of a trial and been back for 2.15. So why I am now prepared to make the ultimate act of defiance?
Well, let’s go back to my case in 1994 in Liverpool. Twenty years ago I would go to court for £46.50. And I still do to this day. Not every day and not every fee. But it still happens. In 2014 the taxi fare would be closer to £90. The taxi driver has probably had his income go up. Certainly the cost of everything has gone up. Things like petrol. Yet, in some instances, my fee remains the same. Thinking about that for a moment, these days every time I drive to Liverpool if you take in to account the cost of petrol, parking, my clerk fees and everything else that day at work costs then on those days that I am getting the £46.50 fee I am probably doing no better than breaking even.
I will admit that the £46.50 fee is relatively rare these days. This is because there was this thing called Carter and I am someone who believes that the Carter review of fees was broadly speaking okay for the Bar. Clearly it was a good deal for the administration. It saved the Government money overall. For the Bar it spread the money available more evenly though the range of cases. At the very least it was a workable system which considered what was appropriate remuneration for the case undertaken.
So yes, since Carter in 2007, the £46.50 days have reduced. However since 2007 a number of things have happened. Firstly inflation has happened. £46.50 in 1994 is now worth nigh on £80 in today’s money. And £100 (the replacement level of fee for many of the £46.50 days) in 2007 is worth nigh on £120 in today’s money. However since 2007 the level of fees have not increased. So in real terms I get £80 compared to the £100 I was getting seven years ago. No cost of living increase for me.
In fact no increase at all. Actually, now you ask, quite the opposite has happened. A number of arbitrary cuts have lowered the level of many of the fees. There have been arbitrary alterations to the scheme that mean I now go to court for free. Yes, you have read that right. Instead of getting £46.50 I now go to court for free some days. Oh and some further alterations have slashed up to 40% from some of the fees. And then the administration has been slicing a percentage from the fees each year for the last three years.
The Carter Graduated Fee Scheme was predicated on a system of swings and roundabouts; some £46.50 days were worth taking the hit because some days produced healthy fees and you took the rough with the smooth. In modern times the fee system is predicated on a system of guillotines and chopping boards. We go to court for free. We have been cut more often than a Mary Berry “cut and come again” cake. And yet we have ground on as we have been ground down.
The Government now reward the professionalism of a body of advocates who were prepared to spend more on travel than the fee for the case by designing a fee scheme based on their idea that we milk cases for all they are worth. They reward our professionalism by demeaning us in the press. They rely on our professionalism to ensure that we will go gentle in to the good night of further fee cuts. WE WILL NOT.
The refusal to work on 06/01/14 is an act of madness. We are mad not to have done it before. We are mad to only take half a day of action. There are those uneasy about what is happening. Yet we cannot carry on doing nothing any longer. Talking gets us nowhere. The Lord Chancellor closes his ears and says “I have to make cuts”. Until he will listen we have to say “I have to make a stand”.
Martin Luther King said “a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a moulder of consensus”. Attend a meeting outside a Crown Court on 06/01 and you will see a consensus amongst the Bar which is unprecedented and has been moulded by the CBA. When I am at the meeting at Manchester I will have no doubt whatsoever that I am doing the right thing. In fact, in true Mancunian style, I am mad for it.