I began this year by exhorting the profession to look for new and innovative ways to practise. In November, under the banner ‘Shaping the future: A modern Bar for a modern market’, the Bar Conference reflected on what we have achieved and continued the exploration of how we can, and will, develop in order to meet the challenges we face. In his keynote address, Robert Webb QC, who has practised both as an employed and a self-employed barrister, delivered a witty and stimulating view of the Bar’s skills and how they may be applied so as to realise our potential.
A variety of workshops investigated opportunities for expansion in many different areas of practice. Whilst recognising the scale of the difficulties, the Bar is showing its resourcefulness in its search for alternative ways to move forward. A measure of our determination in this quest is the fact that this year’s conference had a record number of attendees and the largest amount of sponsorship so far. This success is also a testament to the skill and dedication of the Organising Board and the Member Services team, which so skilfully captured the mood of the profession. I congratulate them all.
The Legal Aid Bill
The importance of these initiatives is underlined by recent events. Despite a well organised and vigorous campaign in the Committee Stage of the Commons, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill has passed on to the Lords effectively unchanged. It is a matter of some regret that in the third reading of the Bill in the Commons, the Lord Chancellor said: “I am a lawyer, and I have the highest respect for lawyers and no intention of offending the legal profession, but in the lobbying of this House and the upper House we have had an army of lawyers advancing behind a front of women and children - vulnerable claimants who they say would not be represented if they are not paid as much as they are now. I am afraid I do not believe that.”
With this offhand expression, Ken Clarke overlooks the fact that an important part of our campaign has been to illustrate the real extent to which access to justice will be reduced for the vulnerable. This is not just a complaint of lawyers. As the Manifesto for Family Justice (published at the end of October) demonstrates, the Bill has generated concern among a wide range of organisations. The Manifesto brought together groups such as the Women’s Institute, Liberty, the Children’s Commissioner, Gingerbread, and CAADA, amongst others, to demonstrate wide opposition to certain elements of the Bill.
Another arm of our campaign has been to focus on the woeful miscalculation that these proposals will save money. In fact, the Bar Council is not alone in predicting that there is a significant risk that the effects of these cuts will cost the country more, not less. In this context, it is particularly alarming that clause 8(2) of the bill allows the Lord Chancellor to take areas out of the scope of legal aid, but doesn’t grant him the power to include services within scope, so blunders will be difficult to rectify. If these measures are to be justified by the current fiscal climate, why handicap a future government which may wish to reinstate public funding if and when the nation’s finances improve?
And so the Bill has moved to the Lords, where we look forward to a somewhat closer analysis of the issues. By the time you read this, the Second Reading debate will have taken place on 21 November. We have already held a number of meetings with Peers from all parties and the Crossbench. Written Bar Council briefings have been sent out, and I have offered to meet any Peer who wishes to discuss in person the concerns we have raised.
The issue of public funding to the profession, which dominated the Bar’s horizons at the beginning of this year, continues to do so at the end. In addition to this, I remain painfully aware the slow payment of the diminishing amount to be earned at the publicly funded Bar has become a significant worry to many. I can assure you that I will pursue all of these matters right up to the end of my chairmanship, and Michael Todd QC, my successor, stands ready to take them on with equal vigour.
And so, farewell
I will cherish the memories of so many aspects of the past year. It has been an enormous privilege and a source of great pride to lead the profession I love. At home and abroad, I have met leaders from government, the judiciary, business and a wide range of other professions. There have been many interviews on television, radio and in the press. It has been a high-octane experience.
But what I will particularly treasure is being a part of those events and initiatives when the Bar puts its best foot forward: for the contribution to communities in Pro Bono work; for the encouragement of school children and students through social mobility projects; in assisting the national and international legal community with advocacy training; and in the work done by individual barristers for their Circuits, SBAs, the BSB and the Bar Council, and the staff who support them. It has been an honour to serve the profession.
Peter Lodder QC, Bar Chairman