Bar-solicitor divisions ‘music to government’s ears’
Two leading criminal lawyers have called for solicitors and barristers to stop arguing among themselves and unite, to promote their clients' interests and the justice system.
President of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association Jim Meyer said both branches of the profession are struggling due to adverse conditions, with a criminal solicitor facing redundancy for every barrister facing problems. He said there is a growing schism between the two branches of the profession with solicitors ‘finding it difficult to trust the bar's motives’.
Speaking at the association’s annual dinner he described current disagreements over the quality assurance scheme for advocates as ‘a distraction’ from tackling the real issue of inadequate public funding of criminal defence services.
‘If we argue amongst ourselves that one branch should be paid at the expense of another, then we are accepting that there is a single pot and play into the hands of those arguing for one case, one fee,’ he said.
‘What is unhelpful to the debate is the narrow self-interest of one group of stakeholders being promoted above the wider interests of clients and all those involved in delivering quality and justice,’ he said, calling for an open meeting with the bar to find common ground ‘before it is too late’.
On the same theme, barrister Jim Sturman QC warned: ‘By playing the two sides of the profession off against each other... each time the bar scores a point off solicitors, or solicitors off the bar, we cut our own throats as well as each others.’ Divisions between the bar and solicitors are ‘music to the ears of central government’, he said.
Elsewhere in his speech Meyer warned of the ‘fragile’ condition of criminal legal aid firms, with many firms ‘dying’ due the ‘suffocating squeeze’ of cuts and reform.
He asked judges to ‘truly appreciate how precarious the system really is’ and to understand that solicitors now feel ‘more like indentured servants than respected colleagues and officers of the court’.
He reminded them how solicitors had put aside personal and financial considerations and worked through the night in last summer’s riots response courts. But Meyer warned of the dangers of extending such courts and the adverse impact on defendants’ rights of measures designed to speed up the court system.
Justice, he said, requires equal access to the court and, if not equal means and resources, then at least parity between parties. But he said: ‘The truth is there is no longer an equality of arms as between the publicly funded defendant and the prosecutor. If you can afford to fund your defence privately then you are going to get a better defence. It is as simple as that.’
The criminal justice system, he said, has always been used as a ‘political football’, but practitioners and the public rely on the judiciary’s independence to ‘guard against the excesses of political expediency’.
Sturman echoed Meyer’s concerns, warning: ‘We are sleepwalking into an age when the young will have their lives blighted forever by a moment’s stupidity, with no hope of redemption in an increasingly punitive and prejudiced society.’
He also criticised the Crown Prosecution Service, warning Keir Starmer QC: ‘Mr director you are in danger of presiding over a march to non-disclosure, and the creation of a system that may be cost-efficient but at a price of routine miscarriages of justice that will blight the lives of those who do not deserve the stain of a conviction.’