In the summer of 2019, the Bar Council wrote to the then Senior Presiding Judge of England and Wales in relation to cuts in court sitting days. Lady Justice Macur replied, pointedly perhaps, that ‘the decision not to further reduce the backlog was a political decision’. At that time, some 40% of Crown Court courtrooms were sitting idle. I doubt that anyone would now suggest that questioning the wisdom of this approach, even if the decision was ‘political’, was anything other than an appropriate thing for the Bar Council to have done. We were not to know that a pandemic was just around the corner, but I suspect there are many in government who wish that our concerns had been taken more seriously.

In a modern democracy, access to justice and the preservation of a functioning justice system are central to our national life, both public and private, but they often give rise to issues that lie at the intersection of law and politics. At times, our expressed views do not sit easily with plans laid out by government or they relate to matters which are also the subject of intense political discourse. In the last year, we have issued statements condemning the use of the phrase ‘lefty lawyers’ by a Minister and sent a letter to the Prime Minister on the same subject; we have also recently issued a critical response, based on evidence and legal analysis, to proposals for reform of judicial review. We have not shied away from condemning the actions of China’s government in sanctioning members of our profession and in the international sphere we speak out when lawyers and judges are threatened.

Representation of some 17,000 members, who themselves hold a range of different political and personal views and experiences, is crucial to everything we do. So why not simply stay silent on anything concerning the political world, to be on the safe side? How do we identify – and stick to – the line?

The answer is found in the simple fact that the line never changes. The Bar Council does not attempt and has never attempted to represent the political preferences of its members – or any political view. At the same time, if the Bar Council remained silent on all topics with a political dimension – however relevant to the justice system and legal profession – there would be little reason for its existence. It would not be playing its instrumental role in ensuring the Bar’s voice is heard effectively, and in the public interest. The need to speak up from the Bar’s perspective on matters that may be politically sensitive is not incompatible with political neutrality. It simply means we put forward the Bar’s view and expertise on legal matters impacting the political and wider world, regardless of which party is in power. It would be wrong to assume that this is not understood and acknowledged by the elected and unelected politicians with whom we work. As a specialist referral profession with deep experience of the law and the workings of the justice system, our input is sought and valued; we work with government as often as we find ourselves at odds with particular proposals. When Brexit first materialised, right through to the end of the transition period, we took no sides but got to work on exploring and explaining its impact on legal services, including mobility, to decision-makers.

But at times it is necessary to speak out on topics that lie within our core competencies and representative role. The Bar Council opposed the increase in court fees, called on the then-Lord Chancellor in 2016 to defend the judiciary in the wake of the ‘Enemies of the People’ headlines, and, more recently has issued a consultation response on the New Plan for Immigration – questioning much of the government’s evidence base and the suggested need for reform. All of these developments affect our justice system, irrespective of which political party instigates them. Committees of barristers – experts in their fields – give input to every consultation response we produce and where we see an element which is beyond our remit, we say so. We proactively respond to consultations that we and our committees deem relevant but are also regularly asked by government to provide input on proposals. This is because the Bar’s perspective and expertise adds value. Legal aid is yet another area where the Bar’s voice needs to be heard and our expertise fed into reform; most recently in the criminal legal aid review headed by Sir Christopher Bellamy QC. Standing on the sidelines watching the justice system fail is not an option.

The Bar makes a vital contribution to the efficient and effective operation of criminal and civil courts and tribunals. It makes sense that the Bar’s views should be heard. Sometimes stronger statements than others are necessary. At the centre of our work is access to justice and the public interest in having a justice system and legal profession of the highest quality.

Which brings me full circle to the backlog. The question of how long it is reasonable to wait for justice is certainly political, involving as it does questions of funding and resource allocation. Should the Bar Council set out its views and contribute to that debate? I think so; I suspect our fellow citizens would expect no less.