Criminal law barristers have reached a new low of despondency, the chairman of the Bar Council has told Lord Chancellor Ken Clarke.
Peter Lodder QC warned that the government’s legal aid cuts could also see the Bar return to “a professional enclave for the better-off” as students are discouraged by mounting debts.
In a recent letter, he said the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill – which returns to its House of Commons committee stage next week – posed “perhaps the biggest challenge” to the existence of the criminal Bar.
“Experienced and talented individuals are leaking away from the profession. Pupillage opportunities in publicly-funded work are simply drying up in several large metropolitan cities. The recruitment crisis is having immediate effects which, unless checked, could well have longer-term damaging consequences (no doubt unforeseen and unintended).”
Mr Lodder said: “In 30 years of practice at the criminal Bar, I have never known its practitioners to be more despondent. It would do much to remove the criminal Bar’s current sense of anger and lift them from their despondency if you could make clear your commitment to the survival of the independent Bar.” The pair have a meeting scheduled for next week.
He said this, combined with students’ debts often of £50-60,000 and the “inherent uncertainty of practice as a self-employed barrister”, may well discourage “all but the most wealthy, who are not always the most talented” from joining the Bar.
“There is a real risk that the Bar will return to becoming a professional enclave for the better off and put paid to the government’s efforts to promote greater social mobility in the professions, efforts which the Bar has strongly supported,” he said.
Mr Lodder argued that this would have wider implications for the effective administration of justice by reducing the pool of skilled prosecutors and defenders, as well as judges. It could also impact London’s position as a leading global centre of international dispute resolution.
He concluded by asking the government to “think again about the total costs of the changes it is making and recognise the value of the work of the Bar”.