Categorized | Criminal Justice, Legal Aid

The Attorney General’s warning

The Attorney General’s warning

The Annual Bar Conference 2013 was held at the Westminster Park Plaza, London, last weekend, and the ‘Law Gazette’ reported on the proceedings.

In his capacity as head of the bar, Attorney General Dominic Grieve, QC addressed the conference. He expressed sympathy with many of the bar’s current concerns. He said he understands the difficulties faced by the bar over very high cost cases (VHCC) for which, from this month, fees paid will be cut by 30%. He agreed that the fee cuts will not encourage the best students to come to the bar in the future. He said: “There is a serious issue of whether the bar will be attractive.”

But his main message was a stark warning about the dangers of taking the industrial action that has been widely considered by barristers. He particularly urged barristers not to return instructions they have accepted for the most serious criminal cases in protest at fee cuts, warning that if they do, the government may “look elsewhere” for others to do the work.

He accepted that barristers are entitled to refuse to accept new instructions at a fee they find unacceptable, but he said: “I do have concerns about returning instructions that have already been accepted, and particularly so where a trial date has been set.” He said the resulting disruption to the courts “carries with it the very serious risk that within government there will be a view that people should look elsewhere for the service to be provided…I think (it) is something which the bar has got to bear in mind.”

On the wider criminal legal aid cuts he accepted that there are “many reasoned arguments that can be made why we should actually spend more on legal aid as a matter of public policy.”

He went on to suggest, however, that, even without the cuts, the criminal bar would still be facing a very considerable crisis due to the reduction in crime levels and ‘oversupply of barristers’. “The combination of increasing supply and decreasing demand is not sustainable. The criminal bar needs to be at a size where it can thrive, with sufficient barristers to allow for competition, but with enough work to provide an acceptable living,” he said.

On the Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates (QASA), the Attorney General said he is fully aware how unpopular the proposed regime is. But he said he supported any process that helps to “support and bolster the high standards of which the criminal bar is rightly proud and which identifies those who are not able to achieve them.” To refuse to be assessed, he said, is not going to strengthen the bar’s case He warned that “For the bar not to engage constructively with whatever scheme is eventually pursued would be counterproductive.”

In a counter argument, former chairman of the Criminal Bar Association Paul Mendelle QC told the conference that QASA is a “bad idea, badly executed” that would not guarantee quality. In his view: “It creates a fundamental rebalancing of the relationship between the bar and bench,” adding it is “constitutionally unsound, wrong in principle and deeply flawed in practice.”

Picture courtesy of Foreign and Commonwealth Office

This post was written by:

- who has written 462 posts on Upper Case – The Anya Legal Journal.

Mike Gribbin is a retired Civil Servant with wide experience, including the drafting and implementation of Parliamentary legislation and regulations. He is the editor of “Criminal Offences Handbook”, a uniquely comprehensive guide to more than one thousand ways to fall foul of UK criminal law. He is Editor of the Upper Case Legal Journal and has been writing blog posts for the past eight years.

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