Update from the Chairman

15 March 2013

These are remarkably difficult times for all the publicly-funded Bar. Whilst there is great concern and unrest at the criminal Bar, civil and family practitioners will see entire practice areas removed from the scope of legal aid in just a few weeks. The Bar Council has to watch and protect the interests of all practitioners.

Our concern must be, above all else however, to maintain access to justice.
 
I know there is also much anger; understandably so. Successive governments have chosen not to fund the legal aid system adequately. Those who lose out most of all are the people who depend on the service it provides. They are the people we are here to speak up for. But successive waves of government cuts have caused the profession, understandably, to feel depressed and deeply undervalued.   
 
I spoke yesterday evening at the launch of the Ministry of Justice's new plan for growth. To me the link between our global success and reputation, and having effective access to justice for those without means here is inextricable. I made that point during my speech last night. I make no apologies for making sure that the Bar Council continues to have a seat at the table and that our work all around the world continues to be recognised across the industry.
 
I wanted to update you on where we are with some of the crucial issues and to explain why we have not been quite as vocal as some may wish us to be.
 
QASA
 
What I said, and continue to say, about the scheme is set out in Counsel Magazine and in the minutes of Bar Council.
 
"There are strong arguments on the damage to the public interest of both these aspects of the scheme (POAs and QCs). Those arguments will not be abandoned; we will continue to demonstrate their force and to propose proper and effective assessment of quality, not just competence."
 
I agree that QASA is very important but, in my view and that of others, it is not as pressing as Price Competitive Tendering (PCT). PCT would probably mean the end of the criminal referral Bar. And it is on that issue that I am concentrating our efforts at the moment. All practitioners are perfectly entitled to take their own view on QASA, but it is a regulatory scheme, not a Government one. I know there was great consternation at the Attorney General's reported choice of words on this topic. They are not words which I would have chosen, but we must make sure that a principled opposition to a scheme which must reward excellence, not competence, is not seen by the outside world as opposition to being scrutinised.
 
Fees Policy Group
 
In anticipation of the re-launched consultation on PCT which had been postponed from 2011 the CBA had been running a group looking into alternative systems, objections and all aspects of a potential new Government approach.
 
In 2012 Michael Todd QC was given a mandate by the Bar Council's General Management Committee to be able to negotiate with the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to see if we could influence what went into the consultation paper and not just react. I thought then, and still think now, that was the right thing to do. I asked Michael Turner QC if he was happy that I took some of that group and its work and used that as a base for a Bar Council group, which would include circuit representatives, the young Bar, clerks, a competition specialist and now a practice director who used to run part of the LSC.
 
Stephen Hockman QC remains head of that group and leads our negotiations on this with the MoJ.

We all want the same result. Who gets us there is not important. Nobody can doubt the excellent work the CBA has done on this.
 
Consultation Paper
 
We are working very hard behind the scenes, which is where negotiations have to be carried out, to have as much impact on what goes into the paper as possible. I cannot, and will not, deal with that on the internet, either by blog or tweet. I do follow the tweets and, believe me, I know just how angry and frustrated people are. I have asked that people try and understand that what we are doing cannot be done in public at the moment.
 
We only need another few weeks until the consultation paper is published and then the position will be clear. There is nobody at the Bar Council who is afraid to react in the strongest possible terms if that is what is required, but I do not believe that now is that time.
 
I am not communicating as frequently as some might like because I truly believe that that is in the best interests of the Bar. I am meeting the Lord Chancellor again next week and the Circuit Leaders are seeing him the week after. We are in regular dialogue with MoJ Officials. I will report back as much and as soon as I can.

Maura McGowan QC
Chairman of the Bar