The Chairman of the Bar has called on the Lord Chancellor to “think again about the total costs” of the changes to legal aid.
In a detailed letter to the Lord Chancellor (a copy of which is available on the Bar Council website), Peter Lodder QC refers to “widespread anger” among the publicly funded Bar about the way their views have been ignored.
“Our proposals for achieving cost savings of £350m have been dismissed, including our proposal for unfreezing defendants’ restrained assets to remove the scandal of allowing public funds to be spent on representing wealthy defendants because they are not allowed to use their own money,” he says.
While barristers have not pleaded to be exempt from cuts, their concern is that the government takes account, in the public interest, of “the true cost of successive rounds” of cuts in legal aid by this government and the last, he says. Experienced criminal barristers were “leaking away” from publicly funded work, and pupillage opportunities were “drying up”.
Those setting out on a career at the Bar often had student debts of £50-£60,000 and, given the uncertainty of self-employed practice and “the dearth of available pupillages, the prospect of discharging this level of indebtedness is becoming so daunting as to discourage all but the most wealthy, who are not always the most talented”. Consequently, efforts to promote social mobility could be frustrated. This could have a knock-on effect on the diversity of the judiciary in future.
Experienced advocates helped save public money by reducing delay. The cuts disproportionately affected BME groups and women practitioners. Lodder warns: “Once talented people leave the criminal Bar to pursue more lucrative work in other fields of practice, or they decide to leave the Bar altogether, it will be much more difficult to try to reverse the trend at a later stage.”
He says the cuts could affect the quality of advocacy necessary for the “efficient administration of justice” and the consequences of this would affect the private Bar, and the overseas reputation of barristers and the judiciary.
“High standards of advocacy and advice, coupled with the high standing of our judiciary, contribute enormously to the value which clients in overseas jurisdictions place on the services provided by English barristers in commercial and other disputes with an international element.
“Such disputes are being handled increasingly in London and they make a significant contribution to the UK’s overseas earnings. Once the favourable perception of our legal services is affected by concerns about the quality of service at the Bar or about the efficiency of the administration of justice, London’s position as a leading global centre of international dispute resolution will be threatened and the value of these services will be placed at risk.” Consequently, the UK’s economic recovery could be jeopardised “by efforts to contain public expenditure in one area which have wider, and potentially much deeper, costs in the longer term”.
Lodder, who is due to attend a meeting with the Lord Chancellor in September, calls on him to make clear his commitment to the survival of the independent Bar.