“We are the driving force, the proponents of the development of the law and legislation. We argue the cases at all levels, we test the boundaries in all areas. We regularly, in all disciplines, take on cases for free.”
Despite this “our ethos [is] increasingly undervalued by politicians, unknown to the public and ignored by some sections of the press,” she said. “Chris Grayling should protect [the Bar] and be proud of it as an institution vital to the proper functioning of a democratic society” – but this was “not a role he seems keen to take up at the moment”.
Few professions, and no self-employed profession, could say that nearly half their practitioners work pro bono, and the Chairman launched The Bar in Society to highlight examples of barristers making a difference. The publication sets out eight key pledges and draws on the results of a recent survey, which found that 59.8% thought barristers had a responsibility to lend their skills and knowledge to those who cannot pay for them; 42.4% carried out legal pro bono work and 36.6% worked for a charity or trust.
Of the 48% who said they found themselves currently less able to carry out this type of work, 25.8% cited fee cuts; 13.9% late payment of publicly funded fees; and 48.7% cited increased workload as preventing factors. “[We] cannot allow the politicians and the press to pretend that cuts to public funding will not detrimentally affect the social good,” McGowan warned.
The Bar, largely through its commercial practice, had played “a huge part in the vast financial contribution the legal profession makes to the economy” and, as a whole, had helped to repair the “reputational damage done to the City, to London and the UK as a place to do business more than any other international trading arm”.
“We have done that by virtue of our continuing reputation for probity and integrity,” the Chairman said. “And we have done all that at a time when banks fail and bankers are prosecuted, when MPs are imprisoned for fiddling their expenses and when some sections of the press are literally in the dock for hacking into the phone of a dead teenager.”
Turning to regulation, she said: “Despite the quality of training we provide both at the start and throughout barristers’ careers, which we continue to improve, we are watched over like naughty children. The advent of the Legal Services Board has not driven up standards, it has put more obstacles in the way of those trying to practise well and honestly.”
Warning against despondency, she urged that “there is still so much to fight for” – a “Bar of all for all”. “If you want to see the Bar of tomorrow, look at the young Bar of today. I see a generation of outstanding practitioners, which will secure this profession’s future and values for years to come.”
The Lord Chancellor needed a “lesson in separation of powers”, said keynote speaker Lord Pannick QC. “The Government’s approach to criminal legal aid, closed hearings and judicial review claims suggests that it neither understands nor appreciates the role of advocacy in helping to maintain the rule of law.”
“The policies of this Government are damaging the reputation which this country rightly enjoys throughout the world for the quality of its legal system. It is our task as advocates to present that case as clearly as we can, not in our interest, but in the public interest.”
The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, was closing speaker. He warned that the essential attributes of the profession of advocacy – independence and the “hallmark of quality” which “mark out our nation and make its legal system so much admired” – must be safeguarded and there was no room for complacency. An important aspect was the need to achieve “the right relationship and balance” between practitioners on the Circuits and in London.
Returning to a theme he put forward in the Birkhenhead Lecture at Gray’s Inn in October, the Lord Chief Justice explained that “it is essential to the underpinning both of the rule of law and economic prosperity that you pay serious attention to … the imbalance which has created and continues to create a growing concentration of specialist practitioners in London.”
It was also crucial that “those in the one part which is so prosperous” understand the importance of maintaining cohesion and “take active steps to that end”, given the consequences of “what many perceive as the retrenchment of the state”. In addition to pro bono initiatives, the privately funded sector needed to assist those embarking on a publicly funded career to ensure that it continues to attract independent advocates of a high quality.
He urged engagement with the Jeffrey review of criminal advocacy and concluded that he had every confidence that “you will work out where you want to be in ten years” and “how to get there”. “I know you will, because on the capacity for analysis you all have, you cannot afford to do otherwise.