The publicly funded criminal Bar has weathered many storms. Fees regularly slashed since the days of Jack Straw. The threat of extinction by the Grayling wrecking ball. Filthy and unsafe courts that are not fit for purpose. And a minority of martinet judges demanding the impossible late at night. Yet despite the stress, the appalling working conditions, the quarterly horror of the VAT bill, the biannual spanking from the taxman and the dull ache in the pit of the stomach about how the bills are to be paid, we soldier on. Whether it is wind, rain, pestilence and illness we get to court. We go the extra mile. We represent the weak and the vulnerable and prosecute the guilty with good grace and humour. This whole broken system limps along on a mixture of goodwill and cooperation between counsel, court staff, solicitors and an overworked judiciary. Somehow we make this shitshow work. Because we have to. And because to most of us, it is the best job in the world. And all of this could come to and end. Soon.
I am not going to pretend that our services are as important as doctors, nurses and those on the front line of health care. Particularly at the moment. But we are there to ensure that everyone no matter how wicked, how twisted or wrongly accused has a fair trial and not consigned to the dustbin of the jury of public opinion. We may not save souls nor mend bodies, but we are guardians of the rule of law, the medicated sticking plaster that prevents the thin veneer of civilisation corrupting into savagery.
COVID 19 has not just exposed our filthy and unsafe courts, the Kafkaesque lunacy of reducing sitting hours of judges, and all the other acts of petty insanity that bedevils our system, but it has brought out the best. The CPS are bending over backwards to help cash flow. The MOJ are on board to clean up the courts and ease the backlog. The Legal Aid Authority are on the verge of being vaguely sympathetic to pay us for work done, and judges and court staff are doing an heroic job with rickety technology to make remote hearings work. In reality we are making it up as we go along with cooperation and good humour making the seemingly impossible just about work. Although we are still along way from returning to jury trials.
So you would have thought that with leaders of circuits, the CBA and the Bar Council working hard to help a struggling bar survive, the Inns of Court would pull their weight. Not a bit of it. And the worst offender is my own Inn, Middle Temple, presided over by Sir Brian Leveson.
For those of you not in the profession let me explain. The Inns hold the freehold of our chambers and charge us rent. And it’s not at mates rates. As legally aided sets are shuttered up and empty, with staff furloughed and a few working from home to keep what little there is of the show on the road, you would have thought that they would have bent over backwards to assist us with rent holidays. Not a bit of it. Sir Brian tells us that they are not as wealthy as people think. Although they won’t tell us what wealth they do have. If chambers don’t get rent holidays, they will go under. Never to return. Criminal sets now have had to make a choice, do we train a pupil or lose a member of staff. What is so depressing is that Middle Temple gives the impression that they don’t much care what happens to us. After all the commercial courts are functioning and those criminal sets who sadly can’t pay their rent can easily be replaced by civil practitioners who can. But don’t worry, Sir Brian has promised that money will be put into the Bar Benevolent Fund. The bloody poor box. And that’s what we gave come to.
The criminal Bar has always been treated as a rather necessary embarrassment by some of the upper echelons of the judiciary and the Ministry of Justice. It’s all rather sordid stuff. After all, great cities need sewers. Far better that people with a good mind go into top end civil law, to deal with property, money, the reputations of the rich and the divorce settlements of the famous rather than grub around with such abstract concepts as liberty.
Well, we won’t go down without a fight. Because this really is the last chance saloon for the criminal bar. And it’s drinking up time. I don’t want blood bath. But if we have to shame the Inns into decency I know which side of the barricade I will be on. Perhaps someone could have a look for Middle Temple’s moral compass as they seem to have mislaid it. Soon there will be no room at the Inn for the criminal Bar. What a disgrace.