Yesterday I attended the Criminal Bar Association winter conference. It was joyous and uplifting to see so many old friends. But ‘old’ was the the name of the game. There were very few young barristers there. Why? Because appalling working conditions, low pay, stress, the work life imbalance leading to mental health issues has left the profession that I love on its knees. People are leaving the criminal bar in droves; from QCs down the the most junior of juniors. We are short of judges, courts and barristers. And all this is down to government underfunding over the years. The pandemic hasn’t helped much either. Pre COVID the crown court back log of trials was about 35 thousand. It is now in the region of 75 thousand.
The message that came across is that we are overworked, stressed and can’t take much more of this crap. We are abused by the MOJ, who regard us as an irritation. Dominic Raab, the new Lord Chancellor, is clueless and is obsessed with the abolition of the Human Rights Act and controlling the judiciary. It’s bad enough that he doesn’t understand the problems we face but is is a disgrace that he doesn’t care. He can’t even be bothered to talk to the Bar Council, the leaders of circuit and the CBA. To her credit Suella Braverman, the Attorney General, at least attended and spoke to us…..
The broken Criminal Justice System is held together by goodwill. Most judges trust us and bend over backwards to make life a little more bearable. But the pandemic has spawned a new and deadly variant, Judgeittus, which appears to be spreading. The symptoms are easily spotted. Late night emails demanding skeleton arguments by the morning. Weird protocols insisting that counsel appear in person when it is entirely unnecessary. Some court centres, despite practice directions from the Lord Chief Justice, don’t believe in remote hearings (CVP) at all. They want us all to return to ‘normal’. In other words travel two hours each way for a hearing that can be dealt with by agreement on CVP. It is madness, insulting and insufferable. It shows a degree of tin eared selfish, self importance which must not be tolerated. The resounding message to these ghastly judicial abominations was loud and clear from our conference. Fuck off.
It’s time that these people were put in their place with a national protocol on how CVP should be used. I refuse to attend these rogue court centres and I would encourage other members of the bar to do the same. We know where you are.
Yesterday the last remnants of the criminal bar huddled together in despair. One wise old bird predicted that we would cease to exist within ten years. I hope that he is wrong. But unless the government stops treating us like shit we will whither on the vine. We are accused of leaving guilty pleas to the day of trial. How insulting. In cases where the evidence is overwhelming, we have done our very best to warn clients that they should plead guilty. It is very often that only on the day of trial that a defendant comes to terms with the enormity of the evidence against them. And the system is designed to encourage an early guilty plea. 30% reduction of a prison sentence if there is a plea at the magistrates court, 25% at the first appearance at the Crown Court and thereafter a sliding scale down to 10% on the day of trial. But the government won’t tell you that.
We are fed up with being patronised, demonised and underpaid. We are fed up with working fourteen hour days. We are fed up with working every weekend for nothing. We are not lefty do gooders, we do not delay proceedings on a time wasting whim for the disclosure of evidence. We protect the weak and the vulnerable and prosecute the guilty. And, unlike the government, we uphold the rule of law.
In a couple of weeks the government will announce its response to the review on fees for criminal legal aid. If they kick it into the long grass, if they brief that we are Coxian fat cats, if they dare pray in aid the pandemic for failing to reward us properly we will go on strike.
We have had enough. No doubt they will ask the army to sort it out and abolish juries.
Boris Johnson is very good at promising to save Christmas. Why doesn’t he save the criminal justice system?