It would seem there is a lot of talking going on. We hear today that the “Bar” are in advanced talks with the MoJ over changes to Legal Aid regulations. This in the week where the CBA and the CLSA et al had talks about talks where some of the things that were talked about were misunderstood. The Lord Chancellor had “productive” talks with most of the people present at the earlier talk about talks. All this after we had learnt that the CBA were engaged in talks about the future of the Bar with a Lord Chancellor who engaged in a lot of sweet talk about the Bar to anyone who would listen.
A lot of talk but a complete dearth of communication.
This is the real problem which bedevils the legal profession. As you can imagine I like to think I follow things pretty closely. I read the Monday Message and the Tuesday Truth. If there was a Wednesday Waffle I would read that too. Yet I am regularly taken by surprise by things that are being talked about in my name. I wish those who represent me would embrace communication and learn the importance of information.
There was one vital part of that last paragraph. “Those who represent me.” The Bar Council and the CBA do not govern me. They act as my representatives. It is (obviously) unwieldy for the Lord Chancellor to speak to each of us. When the CBA and the Bar Council are in the room they are there as my proxy. And that means I am entitled to know what goes on.
So often we are told that meetings are subject to Chatham House Rules and therefore we cannot be told what happened. Firstly this is not what Chatham House Rules are about. CHR is a mechanism by which the identity of a contributor is not to be disclosed to allow those present to freely discuss issues without fear of their employment or role being undermined. It is not a promise of confidentiality or a short hand for the Officical Secrets Act. So, as an aside, if you want to keep secrets, do not hide behind Chatham House Rules or fall for it when the Minister says, conspiratorially, “of course, Chatham House Rules applies.”
Secondly these meetings should be conducted with the presumption that their contents will be widely disseminated. The provision of information would do much to quell some of the wild speculation that fills the void created by the absence of information. It would also do much to assist in the reality of expectations.
Let me give you a recent example. When the CBA commissioned the slightly infamous survey they were involved in a strategy that included engagement with the MoJ over things such as referral fees and modifications to the AGFS. If the membership had known this then much of the furore over the survey could have been avoided. The problem was that the strategy adopted conflicted with the survey, something we only discovered in the aftermath. Anger abounded. It was all so avoidable.
Another problem that is created is that the wider Bar learn about things after it is too late to influence the shape of things. We end up with the only influence the ordinary member can have is to enter into conflict with the representative body in order to overturn things which are set in stone. We end up fighting rather than discussing.
There are times when certain matters are too sensitive for wider dissemination. I stress that such situations would be very limited. That is not to say that we should be told nothing. The presumption should be that we know much of what is happening rather than nothing at all.
The various representative bodies should do much better at owning the information. Starting from a basis of wide dissemination of what is happening the bodies should not be constantly reacting, often belatedly, to a firestorm of speculation when, for example, Jack of Kent or Crimeline let us know things we should know already. When such situations do arise the bodies should react more quickly and with accurate information. “No comment” is for suspects and football managers. Not for representative bodies to their membership.
Social media is a valuable tool in this area. So often it is treated like some unexploded bomb of deliberate animosity. It is not. Remember how insulting it was when opposition to QASA was described as a “noisy minority”? Well such dismissive and condescending nonsense should not be peddled by a body about those it represents. Yet still it happens.
Social media is a wonderful tool to aid the provision of information. It is not to be feared.
At the outset of Transforming Legal Aid I would oft repeat the slogan “Information is Unity. Unity is strength. Strength is victory.” Nothing has happened in the last two years to make me believe anything different. Sadly much of what has happened has been the demonstration that the lack of information leads to disunity. We can do better. We have to do better.