Tag Archives: law society

Relate

I am at risk of stealing a joke from Patrick Kielty. Actually, I may as well confess, I am about to just steal the joke. It is from Kielty’s famously (and some may say “only”) funny routine where he imagines a world where nations communicate on Facebook

So here goes, if barristers and solicitors were to describe the nature of the relationship in Facebook terms it would be “complicated”. And the MoJ would definitely “like” that. 

In fact there are many ways that the relationship would be better described as “open”. Barristers and Solicitors are allowed to see brief other people. When it comes to the Bar, we are even allowed to go into bat for both sides. Blimey, it is complicated. 

No matter what the nature of the relationship it would be fair to say that when news of “the deal” broke a while ago we were very much “on a break”. And during the break the Bar “did a Ross” and started to see the MoJ. And ever since then the relationship has been tempestuous. To say the least. 

I have been an interested observer in Bar politics, and therefore the politics of the wider legal landscape, since before Carter came along. In that time I have often pondered the unusual relationship that exists between barrister and solicitor. There is such an interesting dynamic at work. In my view it divides into three areas. Understanding the balance of power in those three areas may help in establishing a more unified approach. 

The most common way that the relationship is expressed is the commercial relationship between instructing solicitor and the instructed advocate. Without doubt the nature of this relationship is one where the solicitor holds most of the power. The solicitor is, in such cases, the holder of the Representation Order. They have the security provided by the Regulations which will bind the client to them in the majority of circumstances. The Bar have none of that security. The instructed barrister can be sacked the day before the trial and have no recourse whatsoever and little prospect of receiving a fee that equates to the work undertaken. 

And with that insecurity comes the power that the solicitors holds. Even in a “one-off” instruction the barrister is at risk of a withdrawal of instructions. And of course the barrister should be hoping for a long term relationship with that the solicitor with lots of work flowing their way. It is one of the factors, along with professionalism and pride, that spurs you on to impress and to continue to impress. And it is the ability to terminate that relationship that the solicitor should use to make sure their clients get absolutely top notch service from the barrister, the clerks and the chambers. 

In recent times there has been a regulatory relationship. The parent LSB has the SRA and BSB as the siblings with the slightly awkward relationship. This is a relationship where it is more difficult to gauge the balance of power. It is impossible to fathom what motivates regulators, other than the desire to regulate and regulate regularly. I suspect that the SRA often have the upper hand because of the cost of regulation. The costs of the LSB are divided between the BSB and the SRA in fractions that relate to the comparable numbers of professionals regulated ie the SRA pay more because they regulate more individuals and entities. And it is preserving this division of costs where the BSB will often tread on eggshells – they never want their big brother to push for more money from them. 

Now we have the nature of the relationship in the visceral world of politicians and civil servants. This is where I suggest the Bar currently edge it. I suspect that we have, in fact, wielded more “power” in this arena than our colleagues than we even realised. It is not just the influence that was garnered as a result of “the deal” and subsequent engagement. It is not influence gained by the Bar being more “establishment”. 

It is slightly perverse that solicitors undertake the lion’s share of criminal work within the system and yet the Bar wields the greatest power to cause embarrassment in the Crown Court. It is the focus of interest in cases that appear in the Crown Court which means the Bar are “feared” more than solicitors. It also stems from the fact that the Bar prosecute a significant proportion of the cases in the Crown Court and are, to that extent, of greater perceived value to the Government. 

As I say, it is all incredibly complicated. 

Understanding the nature of the relationship is important in improving the relationship. Politically the relationship is at quite a low ebb at the moment. I have said this before in a previous blog but that relationship is not going to be improved if solicitors continue to find offence in everything the Bar do. It is not going to improve if every time the Bar try to promote their strengths they are accused of denigrating solicitors. 

The flip side to that is that the leadership of the Bar need to carefully consider the nature of their public pronouncements. As advocates we should be able to make sure our words do not cause offence or leave room for offence to be taken. That is particularly important when being “pro-Bar” to make sure it is not either the product of, or an unintended manifestation of, an anti-solicitor rhetoric. 

It is important to remember that the various representative bodies represent their members. It would be ridiculous for the Criminal Bar Association to ignore the concerns of its members. Everything such associations do should be consistent and not contrary to the public interest. But it should be done on behalf of their members. To recognise that would be a huge step forward to effectively working together. 

We are not yet a unified profession. For a number of reasons there are still some competing interests. These are capable of being recognised and coped with in a mature and mutually beneficial relationship. A complicated, but not impossible, relationship. 

Iolanthe Part 3

The last in an occasional series where I meet the Lord Chancellor…..

Now people, don’t be lazy. Please read Iolanthe Part 1 and Iolanthe Part 2 before reading on in order to get the full context.

A recap. In Part 1 I reported how the Lord Chancellor was asked if he could give an early reassurance on client choice and his response was to say he was listening but could do no more at the moment because he was in the midst of a consultation that he had to let run its course…..three days before he was widely reported in the press giving an early reassurance on client choice. In Part 2 I told you how the Lord Chancellor revealed he had been talking to people who thought they could provide a service within his “financial envelope” of savage cuts……which turned out to be the Law Society.

In Part 3 you will hear some of the Minister’s views on lawyers, fat cats and Michael Turner. And when you hear how some of those views are expressed you may also find out what his opinions really are!

So the next topic covered was the eligibility criteria for criminal legal aid and the £37,500 income threshold. In what you may view as a socially awkward moment the Minister asked the questioner if he understood the income threshold. He then went on to explain, speaking very slowly so we could keep up, that it was disposable income that was the determining factor and not income. He then went on to explain what disposable income was. We were all managing to keep up. He then went on to explain that it basically meant that someone had to be earning a six figure salary before they would be caught by the income threshold.

[I am just going to interrupt at this point. He had been doing a good job up to now of telling us what we already knew. But his protestation that it basically only captured those on a £100K salary did, perhaps, reveal something he did not know. It is household disposable income. So two headteachers, married to each other and their work, would in many instances have a joint income in excess of six figures. If it was the case that one of them was the subject of a malicious allegation by a disgruntled or emotionally vulnerable pupil then they may well not get legal aid to assist them through one of the darkest hours of their life. This income threshold does not just capture the wealthy. It captures many a hardworking household.]

However the Lord Chancellor then went on to reveal the things he really did not know. He was asked how many cases that were granted Legal Aid last year would now be excluded by this threshold? He did not know. He was asked how many households fell in to a bracket that would be excluded by this threshold? He did not know. He did qualify the restriction by saying that there would be a discretion to allow Legal Aid in certain cases.

[I presume by this he was not simply referring to cases where the public would quite like the defendant to have Legal Aid but was a reference to financial hardship etc. Let us for a moment just imagine that the Lord Chancellor was right and this provision only captures those in the very highest bracket of earnings. In these circumstances I would imagine a high proportion of people falling in to that category are prosecuted for fraud or commercially related offences. Those are often the more complex prosecutions. Not made complex by the lawyers but by their very nature. Hence they are often quite costly. So costly that most people’s disposable income would be dwarfed by the cost of the case. So they would be exempted and receive Legal Aid under a hardship test. So all we have achieved is the added cost of the whole process of eventually granting them Legal Aid with all the administrative cost and delay that will entail. Brilliant.]

The most junior practitioner in the room, a barrister conducting publicly funded family work, then addressed the Minister. He described the increasing reluctance for practitioners to undertake publicly funded work. He described his own regret at having followed this path already. He eloquently told the Minister, “the Bar is not making up the fact it is under threat – it IS under threat”. The young barrister then deplored the fact that the consultation introduction drew unfair comparisons with the salaries of public servants and the press statements relating to the income of the Prime Minister.

[Hold on to your hats….] The Lord Chancellor responded, “If somebody is deriving their income from Legal Aid work, in my view, rightly or wrongly, then I struggle to see why, taking in to account chambers fees, VAT, pension contributions, why someone’s actual personal income from criminal Legal Aid should be more than the Prime Minister earns and the truth is at the top end of the scale we have people earning considerably more than that.”

[I am making no comment. The fallacy of this argument has been dealt with elsewhere in an excellent piece by Matthew Scott.]

He continued, “I have been accused of saying that barristers are fat cats, I have never said barristers are fat cats.”

[You may never have used those words. It is just an unfortunate coincidence that those words appear in newspaper stories that report your view that barristers should not earn more than the PM whilst we are treated to another photograph of you, arms folded, looking tough in a prison. I await your complaint to the PCC.]

And then, “Look, financially and logically we should just go for one case one fee. It is obvious. It makes perfect sense. Its easier to operate. It creates a streamlined system but I don’t do it because I didn’t want to destroy the Bar. I have had colleagues say I should do it but I didn’t want to because I want to preserve the Bar.”

[And in that moment we have both reassurance and a threat. I feel cared for like an orphan being called “my dear” by Fagin.]

Yet the words of support kept on coming, “I don’t think the Bar is in trouble per se. I think the Bar has a big challenge because of the number of people in it and the number of people trying to come in to it. I recognise coming in to the publicly funded Bar is much less financially attractive than coming in to the commercially funded area of the Bar but that’s the decisions we take. That’s why I became a member of Parliament instead of carrying on with a job where I earned £60,000 per year more than when I became an M.P. You do it because you want to do it.”

[Now reader, wipe away that tear. Stop the gratitude swelling your heart for the selfless sacrifice to public office made by Chris. When he became an M.P. he had the prospect that the more successful he became his income would increase in proportion to the responsibility of his role. He also had the safety net of the potential for a pay rise. I have no such comfort. He was able to emply his wife on a salary of £37,500 per year, paid for by the state. I am sure if I could employ a member of my family as my clerk and have the State pay for it, I would find my income would go that little bit further. He has the State contribute towards his living expense for a second home, despite his proximity to London. When I go to Bristol next month to do a trial, I will pay for my hotel out of my fee. If he is voted out of office at the next election he continues to receive an income from the State as he continues to receive his salary. If all my solicitors go out of business in the autumn I receive an income from the State. But it is means tested and called Job Seekers Allowance. So Lord Chancellor, although I began in Part 1 saying I was impressed by you, this is the point when you started to lose the room completely. This was the moment when we were treated to the duplicity that lies behind the cuts.]

But he did go on to reassure us that he “knew junior publicly funded barristers are not earning a massive amount of money and are not fat cats. I have never suggested they were [my dear]

It was probably for the best that the discussion turned at that point to the unintended costs of litigants in person becoming more prevalent. The Minister was adamant there was no evidence of that. [By that he meant statistical evidence, we can ignore the experience of the Judiciary.] He also stated that he was not worried about not being able to find suitable experts as “we still pay experts £70, £80 or £90 per hour so they are not going to be impoverished as a result of it.” [ Can I be paid £70 per hour? Can I be paid for my preparation and my attendance at court? Please Lord Chancellor, can I?]

As the allotted time neared it’s conclusion we were told, ” We are going to take decisions as sensitively and as thoughtfully as we can. Every decision we’ve taken has been taken for a reason. We may have got some of those reasons wrong but that is why we do a consultation and looking at what people have said and being smart enough to spot when someone says you haven’t got that right and work on it through the summer.” [Except when it comes to client choice, which he will decide upon immediately before appearing in front of the Select Committee because that could have just been embarrassing.]

And then came this gift, “I promise you I do listen and try to talk to people. It is said Chris Grayling never talks to lawyers. That is simply not true.” Which allowed Paul Becker to immediately pounce with, “Well why haven’t you met with Michael Turner?”

Answer……”Michael Turner had a meeting last week with my colleague Lord McNally. There are a lot of people to meet, we are not each meeting with everyone. I have met with the Bar Council, the Law Society, Circuit Leaders, Law Society regional committees and about seven meetings like this with lawyers. Lord McNally saw Mike Turner a couple of weeks ago. Maybe three weeks ago, so we are not ignoring anyone.”

[I probably need make no comment. And yet I cannot resist a little word or two. The list of people the Lord Chancellor had met was impressive. The name Mike Turner is a glaring admission. When dealing with a consultation that includes swingeing cuts to the fees paid to members of the Criminal Bar who would you have at the head of the list that the Lord Chancellor should spend his Friday evening talking to? Me, a criminal hack, or Mike Turner, the voice of the Criminal Bar Association? The idea that this is as a result of Mike Turner having been met by Lord McNally instead of the Lord Chancellor was just too delicious for me, as anyone who has read The Wizard of Epsom will understand.]

And with that, following a photo opportunity which was, for reasons I will not trouble you with, personally hilarious, the Minister was gone.

So what did I get from the meeting? It made it clear to me what we face. As has been demonstrated in the last 48 hours there will be changes and modifications along the way. However I am convinced that he still considers it necessary to introduce catastrophic changes to the system. Yes he will ameliorate the proposals by altering client choice. Everything else is still in the mix. I cannot help but think reducing access to justice is as troubling as ignoring justice. I cannot help but think headline grabbing capital is being made out of things like a residence test for eligiblity. I make no bones about the fact that the perceived need to reduce fees is dangerous, unfair, unthinking and just wrong. I will not apologise for feeling that the work I do requires adequate remuneration. I do not think it is self interest in wanting skilled, not just competent, advocates and lawyers to be present to play their part in the prosecution of the culpable and the protection of the innocent.

Those who oppose these changes oppose almost every aspect of them. The brutal truth is that the Lord Chancellor sees himself as a reformer. Transforming Legal Aid is his crusade. A petition alone is not going to defeat him. Articulate argument is not going to defeat him. Demonstrations with lawyers carrying the coffin of legal aid are not going to defeat him. Strongly worded letters to the Times will not defeat him. Vaguely amusing blogs will not defeat him. But defeat him we must. He has to be forced to see that cuts are unsustainable. He has to be forced to see that the concept of justice is not about unit price, or mere competence, or commerce but is about excellence. I cannot think of anything that underpins our nation in terms of its spirit, rather than just a flag, more eloquently than a sense of right and justice.

Everything that has gone before in terms of opposition has to be redoubled. The petition needs another 100,000 signatures. We all need to keep sharing our thoughts and information. We need to keep the clarity and force of our arguments in the public conscience. In a coalition of thought as disparate as those who oppose these plans there will be difference of opinions but we need as much unity as we can muster in line with our individual beliefs. We need to be prepared for the fact that, in due course, the Government will introduce a series of changes which are unacceptable. And then we must prepare for action. Direct action. And in that we must be bold, unswerving and skilfully led. I know my enemy. I do not underestimate my enemy. I know we can win.

PS it really bugged me throughout the meeting who the Lord Chancellor reminded me of. Then it struck me. His incessant use of “Guys” was reminiscent of Cliff Richard in Summer Holiday…..

Thank you for reading. If you have not done so already, please see what else was said in Iolanthe Part 1 and Iolanthe Part 2.

Iolanthe Part 2

This is the second part of my account of a meeting between the Lord Chancellor and a group of barristers and solicitors on Friday at Altrincham Town Hall. If you have not read the first part you can read it by clicking here. Since writing the first part and planning this part the Lord Chancellor seems to have made some concessions on choice in conjunction with the Law Society. Which is interesting bearing in mind he consistently told us that he could make no decisions and make no pronouncements until after the consultation process had finished. You can read about the discussions that have taken place with the Law Society here. I repeat my observations I made in Part 1 and maintain them below. The Lord Chancellor WILL cut fees and WILL introduce a tender process, of that I have no doubt. He is just trying to find a palatable version. His concession made today is to listen.

Welcome back! Now where was I? The Lord Chancellor had just dealt with the prospect of the loss of me from the profession (some might say that he dealt with it stoically, others might observe he felt it to be no great loss). He had also expressed a view that seemed to be contrary to the recruitment policy of the CPS.

The conversation now returned to matters connected with solicitors’ contracts. One of the solicitors present raised the difficulties that had been experienced by their business due to the uncertainty faced by the profession for a number of years. The Minister said that he was prepared to discuss matters relating to the contracts such as length or contractual framework as he was open to developing a contract that gave the solicitors profession the greatest certainty. He described himself as uninterested in “something cheap and untenable”. Somewhat ominously he used the question of certainty to tell us “I appreciate that you have been here twice before when the Government faced huge opposition and backed away”.

[I describe that last pronouncement as ominous because it is. For those of you reading this who believe the battle is already won in defeating PCT, think again. As you will see, the concept of the Minister not changing his mind where others have due to opposition surfaced more than once on the evening. I have no doubt that the Minister is wedded to some form of tendering and contract process.]

Joe Boyd, counsel from Lincoln House in Manchester, raised again the prospect of solicitors or alternative business structures employing advocates to try to plead as much as possible at the initial stages of the Crown Court process. This is a business model that the proposed “harmonisation” of the guilty plea fee with the trial fee encourages and the potential loss of work to the Bar had to be seen in the context that “the Bar was very close to the edge and small changes such as this could put it over the edge”. The Lord Chancellor responded by saying that he understood that the position with the CPS is that they have rules that a certain ratio of work had to be sent out to counsel [if that is correct and it is set in stone, it has passed me by]. He indicated that he would be willing to consider whether it should be part of the litigator’s contract that a certain percentage of the Crown Court work had to be sent out to counsel.

[Such an element would be of interest to the Bar. How workable it is or how attractive it would be to the solicitors is debatable. I suspect the Devil would be in the detail ie what proportion and how would it be divided? By fees? Number of cases? Number of hearings? For my own part (remember I am a barrister so please don’t shout at me you solicitor types) I have long advocated that the PCMH form and client care letter from the litigator should have sections devoted to informing the defendant of his right to instruct and choose an advocate, including from the Bar. If we are believers that client choice is important, we should be consistent. Shouldn’t we?]

The meeting then really moved on to the heart of the matter. The Lord Chancellor summarised his starting position by telling us “I am in the position of any customer of an industry turning up and saying: ‘Guys I can’t afford this any more I am going to have to pay you 17.5% less’, and because I want to know that the people who are going to deliver the product can do it, I want you to go through a process to demonstrate you can do it……There is not a magic way to avoid this being a tough process for everyone”.

[This all sounds very PCT-ish to me]

This prompted the crucial question from the floor “do you accept that setting the bar at 17.5% below the current price there will be a reduction in quality?” The Minister responded “What I know is that I have got a number of firms I have spoken to privately, and some that have said this publicly, who say ‘Yes we can redo the way that we do things and we can deliver this. Its tough but we can do it’…. I have got to do this, I have got people saying to me they can do it. I know it is a huge challenge, I know I am throwing a huge challenge at people who have operated in a particular way for a very long period of time. There is no alternative to making significant changes. I am not going back to the Treasury and asking for millions from other sectors.”

[Now the first observation to make is that the initial response does not actually refer to quality. Don’t fear, it comes later. What appears to be his first response is a reliance upon the fact that he has current practitioners telling him it that it can work and he assumes this is a guarantee of similar quality. Unfortunately that is a huge gamble to take. The gamble comes in the phrase ‘we can redo the way we do things’. Cutting costs is never very far from cutting corners. The second observation I make is to repeat – this is not the talk of someone planning a major change from the announced policy]

That final observation is not necessarily indicative of my perspicacity as the Lord Chancellor went on to say, “I can tell you, what comes out of this will not be identical to what was in the original document….. We will vary some things……[and now please pay attention, this is an important bit] Please don’t believe at the end of the process I am going to say ‘Guys, it’s been a tough conversation so we won’t do it’.”

[Please don’t believe at the end of the process I am going to say ‘Guys, it’s been a tough conversation so we won’t do it’ – those words completely reinforced the view that I had already formed up to this point. A 17.5% cut based around a competitive tendering process leading to a contract will feature in the final proposal. Undoubtedly the opposition to the proposal has had an impact. But it has not been defeated. Yet.]

After this affirmation of the Minister’s position and his declaration that he believes he can make it work he finally turned to the actual question regarding quality. He observed “It’s about getting the best balance we can in terms of quality and in terms of value for the taxpayer. Now I have said in response to the issues legitimately raised about people just turning up and providing a very low quality service, I have said to both the Bar Council and the Law Society, ‘actually if you guys want to make some recommendations to me about the quality thresholds we should set to ensure someone can’t come along with an industrial machine that’s delivering a rubbish service’ I am very open to that. The Law Society have been very interested and engaged. The Bar Council have said no.”

[Of note here is the Ministers’ view on what quality means. In striking a balance between quality and value he is prepared to sacrifice a degree of quality in return for a good price. He is not looking for the cheapest. Nor is he looking for the best. I like to think of quality in terms of excellence. It would appear the Lord Chancellor likes to think of it in terms of base level of competency.]

Questions were then raised with the Minister about the taper. One barrister present gave him an example of a case he has later this year that is listed for five weeks and by day 17 he would be earning less than £100 per day. The Minister kept repeating that the £14 per day cases simply did not happen [then why have a taper that goes that far?] but that it was his intention to make the system “meaner, leaner and faster.” [In that moment repeating the slur on advocates that we prevent mean, lean and fast.]

[That is it for this section. I shall conclude the meeting in part 3 as soon as possible. I read with interest that in the Law Gazette article printed today the Lord Chancellor is quoted as saying he would also ‘explore further’ the Law Society’s suggested alternative proposal to ‘consolidate the market in stages, using quality and capacity criteria to achieve this’. He seems to have conceded ground on client choice. He is still working on the model. I believe we have every reason to fear what the model will be. He has to guarantee volume to make a 17.5% cut sustainable. He will look to make a 17.5% cut. He will shift on client choice because he realised it was unsustainable. What comes instead may surprise everyone. Even the Law Society.]

TO BE CONTINUEDThe concluding part is available here.