A view from the North

We Are Right

Here we are again. No new work being undertaken. The prospect of days of action. No returns to return. Headlines and news stories. Unity and strength. Division and failure.

I support the action proposed by the CBA. I support it to the hilt. I have now been at the Bar for 25 years. Not once in that time has a single fee for work done ever been increased due to inflation. We have had different ways of being paid, different versions of different ways of being paid and then brutal cuts to fees that the Government had previously decided were appropriate remuneration.

That is 25 years of being undervalued and being treated with contempt.

Enough.

The action should not be about maintaining the status quo. We should not be wedded to being paid per page. It is becoming increasingly difficult to assess how many pages some forms of digital evidence represent. It is taking up a disproportionate amount of time to argue over page counts. As smartphones become ubiquitous and a domestic iron seems to have the processing speed of Mr Babbage, the way evidence is gathered has outstripped the notion of payment per page of paper.

Part of not maintaining the status quo is recognising that fees which have not been increased for inflation and have been subject to cuts so that they are now worth 40% less (in real terms) than when they were first deemed to be appropriate remuneration are not the basis for the figures to go into the boxes of any newly designed scheme.

The MoJ have said it themselves. They described the current AGFS as archaic as they rushed to paint the Bar as being protectionist purveyors of self-interest. I, for once, wholeheartedly agree. The scheme is very old. The level of remuneration we receive for a case is massively out of date. It is not kept up with inflation. And did I mention it has been cut?

So it is the right time to design a new scheme, with new architecture. If we tear down a building to build something modern which is fit for purpose in a low carbon, high tech digital age we do not use the same bricks, the same floor boards, the same single glazed window units and asbestos tiles. And so it is with the scheme which came into force on 1st April. The Bar did their bit by trying to design something modern, the MoJ have built something belonging in the last century.

This is why we are right to take this action and the government response that we helped design this scheme is not a reason why we cannot reject it.

I entirely understand that the Judiciary have to maintain an independence from the actions of the Executive. I also hope that the Judiciary realise that we do a heck of a lot more for a heck of a lot less money than would have been the case when many of them were in our shoes. As I said, I have been doing this job 25 years. When I was trained, when many of the senior Judiciary would have been junior barristers, I had to be concerned about learning how to draft advices on evidence and appeal. And that was about it for written work.

During this week, as well as doing a trial, I have drafted two skeleton arguments, one basis of plea, an adverse verdict report, a bad character response and edited an ABE interview. None of that was work the Bar did twenty years ago. Certainly not with the frequency we now endure. Each year that passes, each year that diminishes our fees by dint of inflation, sees an increase in the workload required by statute, practice direction and order of the Court.

All of that in a working week which follows a period when I have spent two Saturdays in the last eight weeks attending training courses designed to improve our system in relation to sex cases and vulnerable witnesses. I am not seeking to invoke sympathy. I do a worthwhile job and accept that I have to do it properly. But those who think they know what we do, how we do it and what we get paid for it may be thinking of a life at the Bar which is long gone.

Even if a Judge was appointed last year they should remember the steady creep of increased workloads matched by the steady reduction in fees. And I am not going to begin to add in some of the working conditions we face. As Judges they have to maintain their independence. As women and men who are assisted by capable advocates producing skeleton arguments and agreed facts, their hearts and minds should be with us. Their independence does not mean that they should not be able to see through the MoJ spin.

Any Judge who wants to understand more about our position need only ask. I, and many others, would only be too glad to tell them the unvarnished reality. The same offer can be extended to any politician. Or Tax Barrister.

We do not take this action lightly. There will be members of the Bar who are immediately put in financial peril by taking this action. Clients are being disadvantaged. Solicitors are having to deal with fall out of the action, continuing to do their best for clients in incredibly difficult circumstances. But we must take this action. And it has to succeed. If we fail, we do not fail ourselves, but we fail the future. We fail the future of a diverse judiciary. We fail future victims who will be cross-examined by a lower quality advocate. We fail future defendants who will be represented by de-motivated advocates who are the face of an under-valued and under-funded system.