There’s many a slip twixt cup and lip, so the old saying goes. Is this just a drop in the saucer or are we sitting here with hot, scalding tea in our lap?
There are some things that have not changed. Have not changed one iota. As I see it dual contracts are still a poor outcome for the Bar. The second cut, imposed on 1st July, is still a bad outcome for the Bar (and solicitors). The fight against the second cut is strategically an important step in bringing dual contracts to an end before they begin. These two judgements remain unaltered.
It also remains the case that I believe the alternative proposed by those against the taking of direct action at this time, and in this cause, is insufficient, of itself, to ensure the future of the Bar. I see no argument yet made that persuades me regulation about referral fees will be enough to secure our future. We have seen it before with Carter – the greatest threat to our source of work is inadequate remuneration to those that provide us with work. Thereafter our remuneration for that work is of paramount importance. Securing appropriate remuneration is therefore key to our survival. It is also vital to the provision of proper and skilled representation in the police stations, in the lower courts and in the most serious of cases.
None of that has changed.
It is folly, however, to pretend that the issuing of the second protocol is not a significant event. If any proponent of action tries to brush it off as anything other they are plainly, palpably wrong.
It was obvious, and I apologise if this needed pointing out in advance, that the possibility existed for a change in tactics by those corralling the solicitor profession. Did I expect this change at this time? No.
Am I disappointed by this change? The honest answer is yes. I accept and acknowledge that I am something of an extremist in this regard. I believe that we should all, barrister and solicitor alike, walk out of court until such time as Legal Aid is put on a sustainable footing. I believe Sir Anthony Hooper and I have in common the belief that the Government will only listen when we withdraw our labour. And nothing amounts to a greater withdrawal than courtrooms sitting largely vacant.
So I am disappointed. Recently I addressed solicitors in Manchester and urged them to stay out of the police stations and out of the courtrooms. Maximum disruption provided the maximum opportunity for success.
Direct action can and does work. We saw that, to our benefit, with the previous policy of no returns and we saw the first sign of that with yesterday’s meeting.
(As an aside, the furore over who was there and who was invited was a storm in the said teacup. All it served to highlight was a need for communication between the “leaders” with each other and between the associations and their members.)
So my next question is whether the change to the second protocol diminishes the prospect of success? There are two ways to look at this. The first is to say maximum disruption equals maximum prospect of success and therefore the answer would have to be “yes, it diminishes the chances”. On the other hand if maximum disruption is unsustainable then sustainable and significant disruption becomes the next best scenario.
Again I make it clear, I believe the step change has come too soon. The timing is poor, for reasons I will develop in a moment. I am confident that the leadership of the CLSA and LCCSA have taken this step in the best interests of what they hope to achieve and as a result of developing circumstances. My sense of disappointment and dismay is not the same as a sense of betrayal.
Is the second protocol capable of success? The answer is yes, if it is widely adopted. And there is a prospect that this will be more widely adopted than the first action. I would suggest it would be folly for any solicitor committed to the first protocol to reject this one out of hand. It may encourage some of the doubters to come on board. We will see.
Now for the big question. Should the Bar sustain a commitment to support this action? Nobody is going to fall off their chair when I answer “yes”. I go back to my aims as stated at the outset. I look at what I can do and not at circumstances that are beyond my control. Does the Bar adopting no returns and refusing new work strengthen the effect of direct action? Overwhelmingly, yes it does.
I return now to the question of timing. It is a crying shame that the first protocol was not persisted with to overlap with the introduction of no returns. Now that would have been almost the perfect storm for the MoJ to weather. My sense of regret in that regard is deep.
The more important question of timing is one of perception. The perception created is that the Bar is now being expected to shoulder the greatest burden. We, generally speaking, earn the lion’s share of our income in the Crown Court. That work is created by new work and returned work. The current direct action turns off both taps. If solicitors feel the economic pain of bills to pay and staff to face we have mortgages and families.
Perception does create a skewed picture in this regard. Not undertaking new work in the Crown Court still will have a significant financial impact on solicitors. Their HCAs will be underused. Their clients will still be being turned away. Poaching will still be a risk. The system is such now that the Crown Court workload subsidises less profitable police station and Magistrates’ work. So the second protocol is not all jam for the solicitors. Far from it.
The perception is still very important. We may all be lawyers but we are also, mainly, humans too. Cold, hard logic is not always where decisions are made. Anyone dismissing this perception as nonsense does the owner of the perception a grave injustice.
That being said, the implementation of the second protocol does shift the comparative burden. I am afraid the suggestion that those following the protocol should brief out Magistrates’ trials to the junior Bar does not ease the burden signicantly. It is a well meant gesture. Gestures do not pay the rent.
So it is both the reality of a shifted burden and a perception of hardship falling only one way.
So, what am I saying? I do not ignore the fact that the second protocol changes the situation. It is a development which could cause people to change their mind. No doubt in the coming days there will be meetings of solicitors that will allow them to reflect and make decisions. The Bar should do the same.
And I’m afraid that means another ballot……please do not throw things. It is the only sensible way forward. People should not claim to speak for others, everyone should be allowed to speak for themselves. And that requires a ballot.
The ballot should be organised quickly and should conclude in a short space of time. In the meantime I would still invite my colleagues to respect the decision made recently. That is why I will still not accept new work and will not accept a returned brief.
If a new ballot is organised then I would respectfully suggest the Bar should ease the burden on itself. I would suggest a new protocol that the returns policy only applies to trials. That, in some way, reflects the shift made by the solicitors.
I have no doubt that some will say I do not have all the answers. You would be wary of me if I claimed I did. These are not easy times. We are all trying to find solutions. Time once more for the Bar to consider and to speak.