BAR COUNCIL CHIEF SAYS BARRISTERS ARE HERE TO STAY

10 Nov, 2014

Bar Chairman points to “biggest sustained onslaught on access to justice through legal aid”
Call to maintain best advocates

The chairman of the Bar Council, Nicholas Lavender QC, has described the recent legal aid cuts as “the biggest onslaught on access to justice through legal aid” there has ever been, but says the justice system might be at a turning point.

Nicholas Lavender QC delivered the warning at the Annual Bar Conference – Celebrating Excellence – on Saturday (8 November 2014), highlighting in his keynote speech that despite the recent cuts to legal aid and their impact on families and the vulnerable across the UK, there was some recognition that the cuts had gone too far and that in 2014 there had in fact been no further cuts to legal aid for Crown Court advocates.

The Bar Council chairman, speaking at the conference venue at Westminster Park Plaza, London, rallied delegates by pointing to the profession’s 550 year history, its ability to adapt and survive, and its commitment to maintaining excellence in the face of obstacles. This, he said, had made the Bar a “national asset.”

In his speech, Nicholas Lavender QC, said: “Much has happened since 1466. And through all of that we have not only survived, but gone from strength to strength. We have survived Oliver Cromwell, and I believe that we will survive anything which this or any other Government throws at us.

“We are prepared to adapt. Practice today is not the same as it was in 1466. Many sets of chambers have a more business-like manner of organising and presenting themselves than might have been the case in the in the past. This often includes employing a chief executive and supporting staff as well as the traditional clerks.

“Chief executives were an innovation when I was a pupil, but have now become the norm. Likewise, many barristers have undertaken the training necessary to enable them, when appropriate, to offer their services direct to members of the public, and not merely on the instructions of a solicitor.

“We are living through the biggest sustained onslaught on access to justice through legal aid that there has ever been. As I look back on the year, I believe we have reached a turning point. Previously, we had year after year after year of cuts in advocates’ fees. There have been no cuts this year in criminal legal aid for crown court advocates.”

The Bar Council chairman said that even judges were openly referencing the impact of cuts to the justice system, pointing to Judge Louise Hallam’s recent warning on what the effect of these cuts will be after an illiterate mother of four, with poor sight and hearing, was forced to represent herself in a court hearing over the custody of her children.

Best advocates

The Bar Council chairman pointed to Sir Bill Jeffrey’s Ministry of Justice-commissioned report on the market for criminal advocacy in his speech.

Nicholas Lavender QC said: “Sir Bill found when he visited Crown Court centres and spoke to circuit judges that “the main area of concern” was: “relatively inexperienced solicitor advocates being fielded by their firms (for what were presumed to be commercial reasons) in cases beyond their capability.”

“Action must be taken to ensure that the best advocates are retained for the defendants in legal aid cases. This is in the interests not only of individual defendants but also of the public as a whole, both because effective advocacy lies at the heart of our adversarial criminal justice system and because the public money spent on legal aid should be used to secure the best quality advocacy. We will continue to press for action on this issue.”

Nicholas Lavender QC also boasted of the Bar’s international and economic credentials. He said one eighth of the Bar’s total income comes from overseas clients. The chairman also briefly mentioned regulation of legal services, announcing that he would be tackling some of the challenges the profession faces in a separate speech later in the month.

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