At the CBA Rally in November, Mark George QC delivered a clarion call for action. It was a cri de guerre which struck a chord with the majority of the criminal Bar. He told the meeting he did not care what it was called. Direct Action. A Strike. We could call it the Teddy Bears’ Picnic for all he cared…..
Well on 6th January Chris Grayling went down to the woods and he was in for a big surprise. Despite his confidence that the Bar would not stand together, we did. Outside Crown Courts we literally and figuratively stood together and said “no more”. The CBA message that was delivered there was heard everywhere from Russia to America. Events subsequently show that only those in a building in Petty France heard without listening.
The Lord Chancellor appeared on the Sunday Politics Show with Andrew Neil. I must confess I indulged in a little shouting at the television. He was asked about the Strike. He informed the public that three quarters of Crown Courts operated normally that day. This reminded me of the Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Having been wounded in battle to such extent that he has lost both arms and legs he shouts to his foe, “Come back and fight, its only a scratch.” You see the suggestion that three quarters of Crown Courts operated normally is what we normally call a “lie”. It would be true if Derby and Canterbury normally listed all their trials at 2.15 on a Monday. It would be true if juries were normally sent out by judges who declared themselves a little lonely. It would be true if most days judges came in to court first thing and adjourned vast numbers of cases until the afternoon due to the absence of counsel. It would have been a normal court day if that normally included crowds of barristers stood outside court buildings holding placards.
Andrew Neil, without really having to break a sweat, challenged the Lord Chancellor on the figures produced in the days before the strike. The Minister made the vital point that he did not publish the figures, the statisticians do. I believe the kids today would translate this as “not my bad.” So the ad hoc statistical release on 2nd January was also an unprompted, surprise, spontaneous ejaculation of figures by a bunch of rogue statisticians based in the MoJ? I do not wish to denigrate any statisticians out there but I do not see them as rebels without a cause.
Having laid down his caveat that these figures had just coincidentally and magically appeared he then went on to say some staggering things about them. He faced the relatively straight forward challenge that these figures included VAT. “Oh no they don’t” said he. When it was pointed out that they did he stammered, “well it depends which figures you use.” Anyone who believes the Lord Chancellor may listen to reason alone can abandon that hope now. He has been told countless times of the misleading nature of these figures. Of his figures. And yet he tries to get away with suggesting they do not include VAT.
He was asked about the fact that the figures represent turnover rather than income and that it was misleading for him, or some headline hungry statisticians, to allow this to be represented as income. His response was staggering: “You and I and everyone else have to pay to get to work.”
I will leave to one side the fact that he did not say that everyone has to pay to heat their own office or that every working person has to pay indemnity insurance out of their wage or that every person in the country pays for a practicing certificate. I will also forgive him the fact that so many other professionals get paid for travel on top of the fee that they claim for the work done. I will not carp on about the fact that I am not concerned about having to pay to get to chambers but am concerned about paying to go to Liverpool when I am on a free mention. What really gets my goat about that sentence was the use of the word “I”. Do you really? Is your travel for the purposes of work really paid for out of your ministerial salary?
The Minister is oft fond of saying that no one should earn more than the Prime Minister from public funds. I lay down this challenge for the Minister. If the public spend less on travel for the Prime Minister than they do on the true average earnings of a criminal barrister I will shut up now and never grumble again.
This month Vara has been all over the place trumpeting £84,000 as the average earnings of the criminal bar. I have no idea how he comes to this figure. He wrote a letter in response to the CBA to explain how he got to this figure. I still have no idea how he comes to this figure. Does it include VAT? Is it before expenses? How does he or those pesky statisticians who pop out statistical releases like a wet Gremlin work out part time workers? I sometimes imagine Mr Vara in an impassioned defence of the proposition “the moon is made of cheese.”
And then we have word from Nigel Lithman QC that the Lord Chancellor says the cuts are writ in stone. So there we have it. No more negotiation for now. He has heard our argument but has not listened. I am angry about everything that the MoJ have said and done in recent months. I am angry with the smears. I am angry with the lies. I am angry at the undermining of a jewel in British democracy. But it is not with a hot head that I say this now, it is with a clear mind and a cool heart. WE MUST STRIKE AGAIN.
The MoJ are not going to listen until the are forced to. Really forced to. A strike forces them to have to face the opposition to these cuts. It will make them see that opposition is unified. A strike causes them embarrassment. People have been refusing VHCCs for weeks now. It barely makes the press. We strike and it is headline news. That gives us a platform to put our case in a way that no other action does.
It is also vital that we act soon. We have to act before it is too late and the Bar begins to ebb away. But it is also vital that we act whilst the momentum is there. And this is a plea to the leadership. So far you have led as never before. The rank and file are right behind you. Capture this desire to act and ignite it. Tell us when, tell us where, tell us how. But tell us now.