WestminsterWatch - December 2012

As 2012 comes to a close, Toby Craig and Charles Hale look back at the high (and low) lights for Counsel

A year to remember
At the beginning of the year, 2012 seemed full of promise. A London Mayoral election, a Presidential race, the final stages of LASPO lobbying, the Coalition Government still finding its feet, the Diamond Jubilee and of course, the London Olympics. With so much to play for, would it, could it, ever live up to all the hype..? It’s rarely good form to answer a question with a question, but how could you ever have doubted it? This was a year to live long in the memory. The changes have been seismic, the glories have been historic and the lows may leave a legacy more lasting than the regeneration of East London.

It’s always good to accentuate the positive, so starting on that note, our friends in Westminster can give themselves a healthy pat on the back (worry not – they’re well ahead of us on that score) for the organisation and funding of large public events, which placed the UK in the international spotlight. The Diamond Jubilee and Olympics were magnificently organised, went without a hitch and showed Britain at its best, leaving a memorable and patriotic imprint on a most sporting of summers (hat tip too to the remarkable Bradley Wiggins and Andy Murray, for whom an Olympic Gold was not a sufficient return for their supporting endeavours). The biggest plaudits in the political world are probably owed to Lord Coe and Mayor Boris (triumphantly, if narrowly, returned for a second term in the spring). One can’t help but feel that whilst just outside the grips of Westminster for now, things may change for both.

But it was not all jubilation. Ken Clarke departed, probably the last high office of his career, as he was replaced as Lord Chancellor by Chris Grayling (more on that in a moment) to assume a roving financial brief within Cabinet. Although Clarke can look back to a Parliamentary career of committed public service, for which he is to be congratulated, his legacy to access to justice, LASPO, will not be a happy one. As the implementation of the Act, next spring, edges ever nearer, it becomes increasingly clear just how dreadful the impact will be for the many vulnerable people who will no longer, effectively, have any access to a qualified legal representative. The new Lord Chancellor, as well as the Attorney General and Solicitor General will have been left in no doubt of the legal profession’s views, as all attended the excellent Question Time session, which kicked off a busy National Pro Bono Week. Whilst the Bar, the Law Society and CILEx are doing their best to apply some creative thinking to how best to fill the gap left by LASPO, it is disconcerting to realise that the sheer scale of the problem dwarfs even the most innovative solutions.

Different band; same tune
Against all of this is the seemingly perennial backdrop of fierce austerity. The Eurozone is still in turmoil and any Government indications of future spending always speak of cuts, never of increases.

Whilst the team at the Ministry of Justice might have changed, the rhetoric has not. Chris Grayling took the first opportunity to talk tough on legal aid, in the wake of news that Abu Hamza’s case had cost the taxpayer a million pounds in legal aid. It was actually significantly less than that (reported in other sources as under £700,000), but why let the facts get in the way of a good argument? In any event, it was a very large sum, which will have attracted public attention. The Lord Chancellor used the moment to order “an immediate examination of aspects of the system that affect its credibility with the public”, adding that “resources aren’t limitless”. Well, quite right, they’re not, but it rather sounds like there might be a risk of casting due process to one side, if it looks like a defendant is someone the public wouldn’t much like to receive taxpayer-funded support. We await the outcome of the unofficial review, which seems geared more towards a tabloid media message than how best to achieve justice from a shrinking pot. Between the various crises at the BBC and the pending Leveson report, we might be forgiven for thinking that Ministers would turn to Parliament to debate and discuss the big issues of the day, rather than communicate through the newspapers. Sadly, those days have long since disappeared.

All good things...
And so as this year, and another 12 editions of WW’s irreverent witterings draw to a close, it is time to bid some fond farewells. First, to Michael Todd QC, who in all his work this year, not least in Whitehall and Westminster, has served the Bar with huge distinction. He promised when he took office that he pledged to ‘get things done’. He will always be remembered as the Chairman with his tie off and his sleeves rolled up, ready to do battle for the Bar. He has certainly been true to his word and we are sure that Maura McGowan QC will pick up seamlessly where Michael left off. Times are tough for many parts of the Bar, but it has a leadership which has steadfastly remained on the front foot.

But second, it is goodbye to WW, at least as we currently know it, as one half commits himself fully to practice and steps down from the Bar Council after nine years’ dutiful service. With spells as Chairman of the Public Affairs Committee and on the Council’s General Management Committee under his belt, Charles has brought passion, drive and good humour to all he has done for and on behalf of the Bar. His contribution will be greatly missed. He goes with our gratitude and our good wishes. CH, it’s been a pleasure. Don’t be a stranger.

To the readers of our humble column, it’s been and honour to serve the Bar and write with TC what I hope has both informed and inspired an occasional chuckle. There comes a time in every barrister’s Karaoke career, however when New York New York is the only song to sing....

Wishing you all a happy and healthy festive period and a prosperous New Year. Until 2013.

Charles Hale is a barrister at 4 Paper Buildings and a member of the Bar Council.

Toby Craig is the head of communications at the Bar Council.