What is your response to Chris Grayling when he describes lawyers of your calibre as ‘fat cats’?
The description is deeply misleading and unfair, as the Lord Chancellor must know. Those who have chosen to develop private practices earn much more than those who have chosen to do publicly funded work. The latter are driven by a desire to ensure that criminal cases are both defended and prosecuted with excellence and take pride in the role that they play in ensuring that ordinary people are protected against unfairness and even unjust imprisonment – they perform a vital role in our system. Can anyone doubt that the “fat cat” figures have been published by the Ministry of Justice for political purposes, namely to take the focus away from their proposals, which threaten to destroy a system of criminal justice which is admired around the world? In any event, those figures are misleading as they fail to take into account all of the expenses and outgoings that are incurred in practice, along with the significant wait that many practitioners face for payment of their fees. It is right to say that those at the top of the profession make a good living, but that applies to those at the top of other comparable professions. What the Government do not mention, but judges do routinely, is that the use of silks in the prosecution and defence of serious criminal cases actually saves money by shortening the length of the trial, because skilled and experienced practitioners are able to narrow the issues in a case and deal with matters efficiently.
What effects are the Government’s cuts having on practitioners in the North and North East?
Members of the Bar have already seen very substantial reductions in fees for publicly funded work and the vast majority of practitioners have incomes which are modest by any sensible standards. There is no doubt that talented people are already being discouraged from entering the profession to conduct publically funded work. The reduction in pupillage applications bears this out. Indeed, some sets of chambers have publicly stated that they can no longer offer pupillages at all because of the impact of the proposed changes. As Director of Advocacy Training for the North Eastern Circuit, I often meet talented Bar School students who tell me that they feel that they cannot take the risk of entering areas of practice that depend upon public funding because of the level of attack that they (correctly) perceive it to be under. Furthermore, I am sure that it is no exaggeration to say that the current proposals, if introduced, will result in the destruction of the independent Bar as we know it. The proposals are a disgrace.
What is the best professional advice you’ve been given?
In the early stages of my career, I was often led by James Stewart QC (one of the of the finest of many fine advocates produced on the North Eastern Circuit). He told me that when prosecuting and required to make a decision as to, for example, disclosure, he always asked himself: if I were the defendant and innocent, would I think that the approach of the prosecution was fair?
Why did you become a barrister?
I never seriously considered any other career and cannot really remember what started my interest in the Bar. John Mortimer will have had something to do with it as will my dad, Patrick, who was a policeman and valued the role that barristers played in the system in which he too played a part.
Will the current proposals provide ‘access to justice’ in your view?
In too many ways to list in the space available here, the current proposals will restrict access to justice and in some cases destroy it. The proposal that those with household incomes of more than £37,500 will no longer be entitled to legal aid is grossly unfair: an individual who faces a criminal charge will be forced to pay large sums of money to finance his defence and if he is acquitted will be unable to recover all of that money back from the state. Furthermore, an important plank of access to justice is the ability to choose and have confidence in your legal representative: the current proposal of removing choice will prevent that, which is little short of extraordinary. The restriction on legal aid for certain prison law claims will remove access to justice from some of the most vulnerable in our society. The shambles over the implementation of the contract for interpreters shows the dangers of contracts being allocated to the lowest bidder. The impact, on access to justice, of such a system can be seen by the number of appeals in the United States based on ineffective representation at trial.
How do you relax?
Cycling (to the pub).
Paul Greaney QC was interviewed by Guy Hewetson, a partner at Hewetson Shah LLP