A look to the future

As the year in office draws to a close, final reflections both on how difficult these twelve months have been for the Bar, and on how much there is for all in the profession to be proud of and to fight for.

Maura McGowan QC, Chairman of the Bar

2013 has been, as everyone keeps telling me, a very difficult year. We have seen the implementation of LASPO, which has denied legal aid to very many vulnerable people seeking to enforce or defend their rights in family, housing, employment and immigration cases. It has seen two consultations on legal aid funding for criminal work which demonstrate a stubborn commitment by the Ministry of Justice to cut fees, irrespective of the damage done to a legal profession which is the envy of the world, and in total defiance of the fact that fees in some areas of crime have already been cut by 40%. These cuts are planned against a background in which the legal aid spend in crime was £1.1 billion in 2011 and has since fallen to £0.9 billion in 2012. Of course, nobody can depend on the fact that the rate of crime will continue to fall but a very substantial part of that saving has been achieved by the previous cuts in fees. That is being ignored. We continue to argue the case as vigorously as we can.

The public will lose the right to challenge the administrative decisions of the State. Of course that should always be done responsibly and reasonably, but no responsible Government should demonstrate such an unwillingness to have the electorate question its actions. Administrative review is a vital safeguard in a sophisticated and stable democracy.

Another real fear, as the end of the year approaches, is the detrimental effect the changes in scope and funding will have on the demographic of the practising Bar. Like many other professions, we have made great strides in increasing social mobility over the past few decades. Now the debt carried by students from less wealthy backgrounds will deter many people with real and exceptional talent from joining important sections of the profession where the supply of work and the rates of remuneration are threatened.

But there have been high points in the year too. I have shared my time in office at different times with a number of women, as President of the Law Society, as Leader of the largest Circuit, as DPP and now, as Lord Mayor of the City of London. That has never happened before and I fear that the planets will not align in a similar way again for some time but it is a very good precedent and most importantly of all, it was achieved without quotas and with minimal shock. It seems like an ordinary sequence of events, and that is good news.

I have also been able to launch the Bar’s Social Responsibility initiative. It is both heartening and humbling to realise how many of our colleagues give up so much of their time to work without reward, and often without acknowledgement, for people who need their help. It ranges from barristers who pay for themselves to travel to countries with underdeveloped social and legal systems to teach advocacy and ethics or to act as observers at political show trials, to those who help their local disabled people’s group to draw up the terms of their lease. More than 40% of the Bar declares that they do such work - the real figure may be higher - but whatever the actual number it is a remarkable testament to the part we play in society and should act as a brake on lazy journalists and ill-informed politicians looking for a quick and cheap jibe to aim at the Bar.

Looking to the future, 2015 will be the 800th anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta; that tricky trivia question for the Prime Minister and the source of great expectation for the Lord Chancellor. He is planning a Global Law Summit in February to mark the occasion. It will be a fantastic opportunity for us, the Bar, to demonstrate to the world how great a contribution we make to the social fabric of the UK and, ironically, its balance of payments. There is an irony in the planning of such a celebration by a Lord Chancellor who is currently seeking to decimate the publicly-funded Bar in Crown Court advocacy for the sake of about £15 million, which is small change in terms of Government expenditure.

Magna Carta is a statement of fundamental rights of the citizen, some of which survive today. We have more recent pieces of legislation which also state our fundamental rights, not all of which seem so popular with the Lord Chancellor. As a historian, he will be aware that, within months of the sealing of Magna Carta, King John petitioned the Pope for its annulment on the basis that he was forced into it by the Barons. Are we looking to a time when our current rulers seek to find a way out of legislation guaranteeing fundamental rights because they don’t like it either?

This is undoubtedly the greatest profession and I look forward to its continuing vast contribution to the wellbeing, both social and economic, of society.