You that put far away the evil day, and cause the seat of violence to come near ... (Amos 6:3)
But a few weeks ago lawyers protested publicly about the government's criminal legal aid plans - Justice denied: a day of protest. Further protests looked likely. Barristers also took action by refusing returned briefs and it is clear that this was leading to problems in the courts - for example, Custody Time Limits.
In what appears to be a sudden move, barristers have called off planned action over legal aid having entered into a deal with the Ministry of Justice to suspend some of the cuts until after the 2015 general election - The Guardian 27th March. It seems that there will be a review that will take into account three forthcoming reports by Sir Bill Jeffrey on advocacy, Sir Brian Leveson on streamlining court practices and a retired judge, Geoffrey Rivlin QC.
The agreement between the Ministry of Justice, Bar Council and Criminal Bar Association is available via the Ministry website.
A statement by Nigel Lithman QC (Chairman of the Criminal Bar Association) begins by saying:
'We knew we couldn’t please everyone and today has shown us that in equal measure – those who have thanked us for what we have achieved on their behalf and those who have voiced angry criticism of today’s announcement. Why have the CBA agreed to this deal? What was the rationale? And why did we not consult the full membership? The following explains the decision taken by the CBA Executive.
However, in the light of the opposition to the announcement expressed publicly by many of you, the most logical and most democratic next step is to ballot the whole membership of the Criminal Bar. Aaron has received a sufficient number of calls to be required to constitute an EGM. Hence the question to be answered by the ballot is that set out by those seeking the EGM. The question is:
“Do you wish to continue no returns and days of action until all the cuts and reduction in contracts are abandoned”
Details of the mechanism by which it will be held to follow.'
Later, Mr Lithman's statement continued:
'After months of our demands, they called us along with the Vice Chair of the Bar Council and the Circuit Leaders to a meeting on Tuesday evening. There was no mediation and no negotiation. Believe me we tried but they would countenance neither. They presented us with a non-negotiable and non-divisible “one off” deal- if not accepted, there would be no more offers.
They announced they were prepared to defer cuts to the AGFs until at least Summer 2015. They would not reverse the statutory instrument on the VHCCs. Ultimately we were left in no doubt they meant it. But they would engage on many levels to look at a new scheme in place of VHCCs and take account of the Jeffrey, Leveson and Rivlin reviews on future fees and other important changes.' [Links added].
It is not possible to predict what the outcome of those reviews will be and, more to the point, how the outcomes might impact on legal aid.
Naturally, one can sympathise with those who attended the Tuesday evening meeting with the Ministry of Justice. The government made an offer but was unwilling to allow time for the various bodies to consult with their members. The General Election still lies just over 13 months away but the government may well have been fearful of bad press coverage if trials of serious crime were to be disrupted or could not take place within proper timescales. In the realpolitik of Westminster, it is perhaps unlikely that the decision to make an offer will have been the decision of Grayling alone.
Politicians no doubt hope that justice and legal aid will not contaminate the forthcoming general election campaign but they may not be so lucky. Grayling has announced that he will soon publish a Bill to give us a preview of what human rights might look like if he gets his way. We can expect the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights to receive as much adverse comment as government and some elements in the popular media can muster. It will prove to be far from easy to counter this.
The Chairman of the Bar Council - Nicholas Lavender QC has welcomed the announcement as a viable pathway for the criminal justice system - Bar Council 27th March. Mr Lavender said:
"On behalf of the Bar Council, I want to see us build on today's announcement by the Ministry of Justice to ensure that the criminal Bar has a sustainable future. There are, and will remain, challenging times ahead. We cannot alter that, but we must address them. By doing so I believe that we can maintain a strong and independent Bar which is properly valued for its unique contribution to the administration of justice.
"That is why, in the interests of building sustainable and high quality legal representation, we should take this opportunity to move forwards, by engaging with the reviews which have been announced today, resuming normal working relationships with our partners in the criminal justice system and calling off any further days of action. We can do so in the confidence that our voice has been heard."
Is all this just a deferral of the evil day or a viable pathway? I suspect the former but hope for the latter.
Halsbury's Law Exchange - Bar calls off action - views from the profession
Legal Cheek - some of the comments that appeared on social media
Red Lion Chambers - Announcement
Garden Court Chambers - London - Announcement
Dan Bunting - Deal or No Deal?
A view from the north
Western Circuit - statement from Andrew Langdon QC
Law Society Gazette 27th March
Very junior criminal practice is almost obsolete and financially catastrophic. Under 5yrs call = reliant on mags work to eat. @JamesPSVine
— Steph Varle (@stephvarle) March 29, 2014