I’ll be up at stupid o’clock tomorrow, to pay stupid amounts of money to catch a train to London just so I can join in the march for justice. Be sure of this: getting up before 6am on a day when I am not getting paid is something I only do in extremis. Especially when it costs me over 150 qua.
My kids are 4 and 5. Whether they grow up to be fine upstanding young men, or black sheep, I don’t want my boys to grow up in a country where they will not get the best possible defence to any crime they may be accused of. I want to be able to continue to teach my boys about the justice system I am proud of and that, in spite of its failings, I believe passionately in. I want to instil that sense of pride and awe in them. Whilst it is inevitable that there are miscarriages in every system (because every system is run by real human beings) ours is a system which includes robust safeguards against such miscarriages of justice – primarily because of the quality legal advice and representation afforded to both defence and prosecution. It is easy to fall for beguiling headlines about criminals benefiting from legal aid, but it isn’t the criminals that the criminal courts are about. Our system does right by us both as victim of crime and as victim of a wrongful accusation - and we are rightfully fiercely protective of it. We should never take that for granted. It is easy to say that the bar are protecting themselves and perhaps that is right. But what we are also protecting is our clients, and our justice – because it is a precious and a delicate thing.
I am marching because I worry that by the time my kids reach the age of criminal responsibility they will not be so well protected against injustice. I am marching because I am fearful that we are destroying the things that make our justice system safe and fair – and once it’s done, we will never be able to claw that back. I am marching because whilst the criminal justice system crumbles, the family justice system will not be far behind it.
So, the criminal bar will be adopting a policy of no returns from tomorrow. For those of you who don’t know what that means, criminal barristers will only do their own cases – if a barrister is unavailable to represent a client at a particular hearing because of a clash nobody else will pick it up. This seemingly small shift will have a big impact, since the operation of the criminal justice system depends upon barristers flexibly picking up briefs at short notice, for little pay and often no profit, to make sure that defendants do not go unrepresented. No barrister takes lightly any step that leaves a client without representation – this has been years in the making and things have reached a crunch point. So you can read from this that this is a big deal. A big deal for defendants. For victims. For barristers, who run the risk of possible disciplinary proceedings and certain loss of income.
Ever since I started out at the bar some 12 years ago there has been a cut to legal aid just enacted or on the horizon (most of the time both). For 12 years we have been responding to consultations, absorbing another cut, listening to one government or another taking another swipe at the bar, reading another conveniently timed data release about so-called “fat cat” lawyers. This is the start of the endgame in a long, slow, corrosive process. If you are interested, I wrote a bit more about this topic in this blog post: It’s not about the lawyers – it’s about YOU!.