The criminal Bar is in crisis again: more stupid attempts by the Ministry of Justice to reduce the public bill for criminal legal aid at the expense of advocates, coming ever closer to provoking the final battle, where either the MOJ faces the reality of destroying our internationally renowned criminal justice system or the criminal Bar faces the reality that it would probably have been better off not wasting the time, expense and effort of a legal training and instead taking a boring old job which gave about the same level of money being doled out now, but with pensions, holiday and sick pay plus weekends and evenings to call your own. Fees are being cut when the economy is doing badly, cut when it is doing well and cut when it isn’t doing much either way.
It was a relief to escape London and retreat to a law dinner in my old college. I took Hetty Briar-Pitt as my guest. I cannot pretend to have been devoted to my legal studies at the university – my tutor wrote at the end of one of my undergraduate essays: ‘Despite the superficial resemblance in the summer to a Butlins’ Holiday Camp, this is in fact a place of learning.’
The dinner was very different from my undergraduate days. Then it was ‘a tale of two cities’ – we ate food you would hardly give your dog unless you possessed a remarkably cruel streak whilst High Table consumed meals that the toughest food critic would have been embarrassed to give anything other than a series of rosettes. What we were given recently would in my day have been very welcome to the undergraduates and disappointing, but not wholly unacceptable, to the dons. The serving staff has also changed. It used to be a collection of Gormenghast like individuals who emerged daily from the cockroach-infested depths, including one incredibly lovely but terrifying-looking man who suffered from shell-shock. He was very efficient and fast-moving unless and until somebody dropped something. He would then go beserk and be carried out of Hall by others. Throughout this, we would chew (and chew) our way through something resembling meat or fish whilst the roast potatoes swam in oil and the cabbage continued to cook itself in warm water. But at this dinner, the staff were young, international, capable and vivacious. I asked the Bursar to explain the difference. ‘Conferences, William,’ he said, ‘conferences. You can’t have conference delegates served by ‘les miserables’ and eating the sort of muck we gave your lot.’
Hetty, who was having an evening away from her husband, a High Court judge, and her beloved horses had been skilfully placed next to a vet, whose wife read law at the college. They discussed a suspicious cough that one of her mares had developed and I kept hearing phrases such as ‘inflammatory airway disease’, ‘heaves’, which appeared to relate to some dust-born allergy and ‘strangles’, the description of which put me off my Brie.
I myself was sitting next to some former mandarin who was now the head of a rival college. I told him that we were having another spat with the Ministry. Like all top ex-civil servants, he knew vaguely what it was about. ‘You anything to do with the trade union side of the Bar?’ he asked. ‘No,’ I said, ‘the baton has passed to a younger and more dynamic crew.’ ‘I’ll tell you where you lot went wrong,’ he said. ‘You always fight for a sum instead of for a mechanism. I would tell them you won’t go back to work at all or ever unless you get a pay review body. We didn’t much like those in my department but, at the end of the day, it sounded less of a climbdown to give one of those than actually paying more money there and then. In the long term you would do very well with a pay review body. It’s people like yourselves deciding what you should get paid. They never turn on those they see as their own. I’d hold out for one of those if I were you.’
His attention was then drawn to a wild-eyed Hetty on the other side of the table. ‘What an extraordinary woman!’ he said. Hetty was shrieking ‘and the scum were actually eating horsemeat’ at the poor vet, who shook his head in disbelief. ‘Or,’ said the mandarin, ‘you always get her to conduct the negotiations.’