Statement from Andrew Walker QC, Chair of the Bar, and Richard Atkins QC, Chair-Elect of the Bar, on the criminal Bar's vote on the Advocates' Graduated Fee Scheme (AGFS):
This vote will bring action to an end in the short term, but let there be no doubt that the closeness of the vote reflects the very real frustration, anger and concern for the future across the criminal Bar.
Those voting to accept the Ministry of Justice's (MoJ) proposal did not do so because they thought that it was a long term solution, any more than did those who voted to reject it. The changes are just a patch repair.
The situation in the criminal justice system remains dire. Addressing the crisis is still urgent. The Criminal Bar and the Bar Council remain united in their concerns about the future and sustainability of the criminal justice system, and of the Criminal Bar itself, which plays such a fundamental role within that system.
For the future, we will be looking very closely at the new AGFS, and analysing its effects, to ensure that we can explain and deal with the points on which it fails, while retaining what prove to be benefits. This is not the end so far as the AGFS is concerned: it is the start.
A wider campaign is now ahead of us. It must take in civil and family legal aid, and prosecution fees, as well as the full spectrum of criminal legal aid. But more than that, it must address the whole of the justice system, its lack of priority in Government, and its desperate need for proper, increased funding. The state of our courts and infrastructure, access to those courts, the LASPO review, the AGFS review, prosecution fees, the problems with disclosure in criminal cases, and the next Government spending round from April 2020 will all be on the list of immediate priorities, but as part of that wider campaign.
We will be pressing the MoJ hard to argue its corner across Government, and providing all of the arguments and justification that we can to help them. But we shall also press them:
● To roll back the destructive attitudes, neglect and lack of respect the publicly-funded Bar has suffered for 20 years;
● To understand that the system cannot cope when it is consistently working beyond its limits; and
● To take full account of the knock-on effects of a failing system: socially, in financial terms, and for the rule of law.
The justice system simply cannot improve without the capacity and funding to do so, and the resilience needed to withstand the ever increasing pressures.
We hope that all specialist Bar associations will join with us and the Bar Council in pursuing these objectives; and we will look to find support from across the legal profession and the justice system to build the case for investment and sustainability.
We cannot afford to fail. If we do not see a sufficient return on our efforts, barristers will no doubt consider once more what steps they can take to make sure that our voice is heard. The public interest in the rule of law and the justice system demands no less.