The chairman of the Criminal Bar Association has launched a wide-ranging attack on the government, Stobart Barristers, Bar Standards Board and the “muzzled” judiciary, while warning that plea-only advocates could damage the unity of barristers and solicitors against price competitive tendering (PCT).
At the association’s annual dinner on Friday, Michael Turner QC argued that with “unity and effort we can save the professions and independent judiciary from oblivion”.
The dinner saw a pupil and a junior barrister talk about the reality of life at the criminal Bar, with Mr Turner saying he invited them to speak “because I knew you would have no stomach for platitudes from a judiciary who appear to have been effectively muzzled – with too few notable exceptions – from voicing dissent to proposals which will ultimately destroy their independence and so affect the public interest”.
Mr Turner was scathing about the prospect of Stobart Barristers bidding for a legal aid contract under PCT, saying that all the company did was place itself as “a middleman between the Bar and the public, collecting a fee for what the public could directly access for themselves”.
He demanded: “What has the Bar Standards Board done about it? Precisely nothing. They really are good value for the £6m pounds we pay them.”
He reiterated his argument that the Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates (QASA) is a “sham designed to con the public into thinking that when choice of representation is removed from them, a quality badge provided by the BSB guarantees them anything. It does not”.
Though PCT is not proposed for the Crown Court at the moment, the effect of the proposed fee cuts would be “catastrophic” for the publicly funded criminal Bar and will make it uneconomic for criminal barristers to remain in chambers. “Many will work from home or give up altogether. That will have a devastating effect on the number of pupillages available, already at an all-time low.”
He continued: “Once the Bar has been dispersed, and the corporates move in as suppliers, those remaining at the Bar will be forced in-house. The Bar will then be trained within a corporate setting. The ethics and integrity of the profession will disappear to be replaced by an interest only in a corporate philosophy.”
Mr Turner said the inclusion of plea-only advocates in QASA – bitterly opposed by the Bar – “has the potential to split apart the professions which are at present united in a manner that I hope remains for evermore”.
He explained: “One must understand why solicitors have been forced into the Crown Court: it is because they were forced to sign up to a graduated fee scheme that simply did not properly remunerate them.
“The way to get rid of plea-only advocates is by ensuring all sections of the professions are properly remunerated for the work that they do. There are still those within our profession that inform me we are in a recession and that we must give way just a little bit. What I say is, why? Our fight is not a selfish one it is for the preservation of our democracy itself…
“This is a fight across the country and can only be one with a unity of purpose in harness with the solicitor profession. We have already said no to QASA and that stance will be supported by a solicitor profession who, even if forced to sign up will not attend accreditation centres or complete their forms.”