An Open Letter to Mark George

Dear Mark

Let me start by saying that I admire you as a person and an advocate. Your career shines out with a burning sense of justice and the desire to right wrongs. You have 10 years more experience at the Bar than I do, and your work covers a greater range than mine. You have been steeped in politics in a way I have not. I only became a member of the CBA’s executive committee this year, having been involved as a commentator and occasional walk-on performer over the last few years during the profession’s campaigns against the legal aid cuts and restrictions on access to justice. So you have many advantages over me.

The main reason I wanted to be on the Exec Committee, and now to become vice-chair, is that I can contribute positively to the evolving changes in the way that the state administers criminal justice. I don’t want to criticise from the sidelines, but to be in the room. Like you, I want the best advice and representation by litigators and advocates to be available to as many people as possible. That needs to be paid for at sensible rates that make the work attractive to the best and brightest.  I want that because I believe the denial of access to justice is a gateway to anarchy and disorder, and the civilised rule of law means everyone should feel that the law can do something for them. If people think they cannot get a fair crack of the whip under the law, why should they obey the law?

Like you, I believe that the MOJ has made a series of poor policy decisions, behind which may well lie a thoroughly nasty ideology of devil take the hindmost.

However (sorry Mr Gove), the prescriptions in your election statement raise more questions than answers. I fear they are either unachievable, or will achieve the opposite of what we both want. Here are some of the questions:

  • No meetings with MOJ apart from LCCSA & CLSA: why? What assurance is there that once in the room everyone will agree? You assume all differences will be ironed out in advance, but that’s a big assumption. Communication with our solicitor colleagues should of course be open and frank, but our interests may not always converge. Your plan puts a lock on solicitors and barristers: for ever? And you leave out the BFG entirely. Are you content for them to meet MOJ on their own? (Joint action plan with LCCSA and CLSA: let’s see how the members vote in the ballot, and again, what about BFG?)
  • ‘Maximum transparency & full communication with the [CBA] membership’. What’s lacking? We have a weekly bulletin from the Chair, and regular updates. Anyone can ask the leadership for more. Social media is full of Exec Committee members giving their views and information. What more do you propose?
  • An immediate 5% rise in advocates’ fees and inflation-linked annual increases. How are you going to negotiate this? What about litigator fees, which you don’t mention? Where will the money come from? Why should lawyers get such favourable treatment over and above others who rely on public funds, like nurses or police officers? And having made this demand part of your platform, what will you say to the membership when it’s turned down flat?
  • Withdrawal of the 8.75% cut and the dual contract. I fear that MOJ are quite happy to sit the action out, and as and when things become really chaotic in police stations and courts, they will turn on the profession and cease to treat us as reasonable negotiating partners.

It would be nice to know how you answer these questions. It’s not matter of being ‘detached from the shop floor’: the nearest thing our business has to a shop floor is the police station, and we barristers are inevitably detached from that, but we know our solicitors and the wretched fees they get for their work there. Otherwise, unless we are particularly snooty, we all do the same job. No silk who spends time in chambers or the Crown Court can be unaware of the strength of feeling among juniors – and silks – about what is going on. The out-of-touch silk is a bit of a straw man.

I think that militancy at this time, and the hyped-up language of militancy, are out of place. You offer the membership a gamble: put everything on the red, now. What if you fail? I think a more measured strategy is called for.

Yours ever,

Francis

 

 

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About Francis FitzGibbon QC

I am a QC and member of Doughty Street Chambers, London (www.doughtystreet.co.uk) & an associate member of Trinity Chambers, Newcastle (www.trinitychambers.co.uk). Chair of the Criminal Bar Association of England & Wales. I practise criminal law. Please do not look for legal advice in this blog as you won't find any. The views expressed here are entirely personal.
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