REUTERS | Paulo Whitaker

We are not enemies of the people

2016/17 will be forever associated with elections across the globe and all that has come with them: “fake news”; hacks; leaks; U-turns; polarisation; and polls that have been, time after time, proven to be incorrect.

But for those who are not yet suffering from election apathy, The Value of Justice: The Bar Council’s Manifesto for Justice is definitely worth reading. It sets out the policies and objectives that the Bar Council would like to see enacted by any incoming government.

It is not hard to see why the Bar Council thinks such a manifesto is necessary. It specifically references the Lord Chancellor’s failure to stand up for the judges who were branded “enemies of the people” by the press. In the modern age, never before has the English judiciary been attacked so vehemently and so publicly.

The manifesto sets out six core values of our justice system, which the Bar Council thinks are being eroded:

  • Judicial independence.
  • Legal excellence, by undervaluing standards of excellence in judges and the legal profession more widely.
  • Stewardship, by failing to make proper investment in the infrastructure of justice.
  • Innovation.
  • Humanity, by failing to respect the poorest and most vulnerable in society and by failing to ensure that they can achieve equality before the law.
  • An open market for legal services, due to the risk posed by Brexit.

The manifesto includes some shocking statistics. For example, since fees were introduced into employment tribunal cases, the number of cases has dropped by 70%. Similarly staggeringly, 89% of issues raised in London MPs’ constituency surgeries were legal in nature. I think there can be no doubt that that must have been contributed to by the dramatic cuts to legal aid in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO).

So what does the Bar Council want?

The manifesto includes ways in which the erosion of each of the values above can be reversed. I think the most notable are:

  • Appointing a Lord Chancellor who has the necessary experience and authority to protect the independence of the judiciary.
  • Increasing the rates for publicly-funded work.
  • Reviewing the consequences of LASPO and reintroducing legal aid to the most vulnerable members of society.
  • Developing a Brexit strategy to protect the legal services sector, including by achieving the mutual recognition and enforcement of judgments.

What effect will this have on disputes lawyers?

The Bar Council has clearly set out what it wants, but the question is will it get it? The Bar Council is careful to address its manifesto to politicians of “every hue”. But the uphill struggle it faces is that many (though not all) of the changes and trends it is rallying against were caused or compounded during the previous Conservative and coalition governments. At the time of writing, the polls are predicting another Conservative government. Of course, as was repeatedly demonstrated in 2016, the polls are not always correct and a lot can change between now and 8 June.

But whichever political party forms a government in June, I think there could be an appetite for change. The Bar Council has set out a compelling case to those across the political spectrum: the proposals make economic sense.

With regard to legal aid, the amount spent by government over the last 10 years has dropped by a third, from £2.5 billion to £1.6 billion. Yet the number of litigants in person has increased dramatically, as has the number of people seeking help through others means, such as in MPs’ surgeries. This must beg the question, whatever your political allegiance, of whether the cuts to legal aid have been a false economy.

A similar point can be made regarding the need for a Brexit strategy that protects the legal services market. The manifesto states that the UK legal services market contributes £25 billion per year to the UK economy (1.6% of GDP) and currently accounts for 10% of the global market for legal services. There is an obvious economic imperative in ensuring that the UK legal services market continues to thrive post-Brexit.

It would be wrong to say that the proposals are just about economics. The Bar Council plainly believes that they are necessary in order to ensure a strong and effective system of justice which is vital to create a fair society.

But the fact that the proposals make economic sense is repeatedly underlined throughout the manifesto, from the title (The Value of Justice) to the frequent reliance on economic facts and figures and outright statements (“Our economic growth and prosperity depend on the Rule of Law”). I think, perhaps cynically, that economic arguments are likely to have the greatest cross-party appeal. We’ll have to wait and see whether they have sufficient traction for any incoming government to enact the changes so clearly and forcefully set out by the Bar Council.

39 Essex Chambers Melissa Shipley

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