Last night I sat down to watch the news. They led with the prospect of imminent industrial action being mooted by those working in healthcare, because the government were proposing to resile on their promise to increase the pay by 1%, of those who work within the NHS. Instead, the proposal was to freeze their pay, following two previous years of pay freezes. The camera switched to various healthcare workers arguing as to the unfairness of their situation, various union officials venting their fury and of course, the token government junior minister arguing how the pay rises were simply unaffordable. As the arguments went back and forth I couldn’t help but wonder what level of outrage would be manifested if rather than freeze their pay for the third year running, the government chose to cut their pay by between 17 ½ and 30%. I wistfully thought of how nice it would be to have a pay freeze, or at the very least, to be paid for the work I did.
You see, in the previous week I had attended a conference on a murder case at Belmarsh prison, a difficult day with a difficult client explaining complicated points in an extremely serious case; had a mention at the Bailey in that same case; done a sentence on a drugs trial I had been involved in some weeks previously as well as drafted a skeleton argument, attended a PCMH, had an evening conference in a new matter and attended a pre-trial review in a fraud case which is due to be heard soon. My take home pay for that week? Nada, zip, f*** all. We don’t get paid for conferences. We don’t get paid for mention hearings. We don’t get paid for pre-trial reviews. We don’t get paid for advising on evidence. We don’t get paid for sentence hearings. We don’t get paid for skeleton arguments. The only thing we do get paid for is trials, or at least those parts of trials which aren’t included within the brief fee and after having done the work and submitting the bill, I know it will be nothing short of a miracle if I’m paid what is owing in full, or within 4-6 months.
Now none of this is news to anyone at the criminal bar. We all have our own horror stories to share, know of people who have had to leave the bar, or been forced into bankruptcy. It bears repeating though as it highlights something I think has become lost in the most recent discussions as to whether to strike or not. That fact is, that the rates we currently work for are insulting, demeaning and in no way, in no manner, properly reflect the level of work we do, the seriousness of the responsibilities we bear or reflect the difficulty of our day to day challenges. Yet somehow, all of this seems to have been forgotten. We argue about the most recent proposals to cut fees by 17.5% whilst forgetting that fees have, on average been dropping every year since 1997. We argue as to whether our fees should be subject to a taper whilst forgetting that over half of our daily attendances are unpaid in any event. We argue as to rates whilst forgetting that the greater majority of the criminal bar are owed thousands upon thousands of pounds, by a dishonest LAA who appear to reject or reduce claims as a matter of course, in the hope that those who made the claims will not appeal, or will not appeal in time. We argue as to what we should be paid next year without any sort of united stand being made as to the monies we are all owed for work done in months or years gone by.
It is against this backdrop that I read of the discussions as to whether to strike, of those who counsel that the time is not yet right, that such action could turn the press or public against us, that such action is unaffordable by those at the junior bar and that such action may be counter-productive and when I read such, I become further disheartened.
To me, the issue is clear. It couldn’t, in fact be clearer. What we are facing is nothing less than an attempt by the MoJ to destroy the independent criminal bar. I doubt there is anyone who still believes the MoJ will listen to the evidence, or engage with us unless compelled to do so. Work at our current rates is almost unsustainable, at the new rates survival is inconceivable. Even Des Hudson, that Judas ensconced as the chief executive of the Law Society accepted at the recent LCCSA meeting that he did not believe solicitors could properly prepare cases at the rates being offered. He also said they cut your fees because they can. To me, the answer is simple; we need to show them that they cannot. They take solace in decades of inaction by us. They take solace in our lack of unity. They take solace in our need to discuss, argue and debate whilst Rome burns. They laugh whilst we prevaricate as to how we will be perceived by the public, they laugh whilst we worry about the press. They will be laughing whilst the independent criminal bar withers and dies.
Of course it is true that to strike may be unaffordable to those at the junior bar. Of course it is true to state that any strike is uncertain, with an unknown landscape facing us once we have gone through it. These factors are however, set off against the certainty as to what will happen if we do not take action. The junior bar will be killed off, the more senior and established members will be left trying to earn such living as they can before moving into other better paid areas. The criminal bar will become a playground for those who are wealthy enough to practice within it as a hobby. The decades of progress to BME individuals will be undone at a stroke and instead of the criminal bar attracting the very best advocates, filled with passion and commitment, we will move towards a USA style model, with law students or trainees doing a ‘pro bono’ stint as public defenders before moving onto bigger and better things.
Do I relish the prospects of a strike? Of course not. However, I care about the profession I practice within, I care for the clients I represent and I also care for my family. I do not understand why I shouldn’t be able to provide for my family whilst at the same time working hard in worthwhile job. I understand the anger of those in the NHS who wish to strike for lack of a 1% rise. I have greater difficulty in understanding those within our profession who don’t wish to strike when our very profession’s existence is threatened. It has been said that the fight we are about to undertake could be difficult. Our opposition are masters of the dark arts, they have people in the press ready to spin their lies and they are both unforgiving and uncompromising. The truth is, none of that matters. When you are fighting for your survival it matters not how hard the fight is, how long the odds are, if to lose is to die then the only option is to fight.
So if the call goes out, I shall be on the barricades, I shall be fighting for our profession and I hope you shall too.