The chair of the bar has opened a new attack on government reforms by accusing the executive of treating the legal profession in a way which 'borders on contempt'. Opening the annual bar and young bar conference on Saturday, Andrew Langdon QC said that the bar rejects the case for economies, saying that, because successive governments have undervalued justice, HM Courts and Tribunals Service is already operating under significant constraints. 'The independent bar does not accept the validity of those constraints,' he said.
'We believe that justice is undervalued and the publicly-funded legal profession, which is central to its delivery across the country, is taken for granted.' He described as 'pitifully small' the amount of money needed by the justice system when set against overall government spending.
Ongoing reforms to the courts system, including closures, virtual courts and extended sittings came under particular fire. 'We do not like the sound of so-called "flexible operating hours". Sitting intermittent early and late shifts will deter those with caring responsibilities,' he said - adding to the problem of creating a more diverse profession. He also raised concerns about the new online court's affect on open justice and access to legal advice. The profession has a duty to call out 'ill-conceived reform', he said.
Langdon's warmly-received speech may have made uncomfortable listening for the new chief executive of HMCTS, Susan Acland-Hood, who also spoke. An upbeat address stressed the need for reform in working practices - and that more money alone was not the solution. 'We’re at the limits of what we can do without fundamental change,’ she said.
Attacking what she called 'myths' about the £1bn court reform programme, Acland-Hood said there is no attempt to exclude lawyers from the new online civil court - but that 'it should be possible to navigate the system without a lawyer'. She described as another myth claims that the reforms would harm access to justice. 'We are going to bring parts of the system within reach of people who currently don't have access,' she said.
She also insisted that the proposed flexible hours would be introduced only if the delayed pilot proves a success. 'It is a real pilot. I want to try it. We will not roll out anything that does not work,' she said.
Speaking for the judiciary, The Rt Hon. Lady Justice Hallett, herself a former chair of the bar, said that the government's pledge of £1bn for courts reform was 'a good sign that the legal system is being taken seriously'. She warned colleagues 'not to become paranoid. There is no conspiracy afoot and certainly not one to which I am a party' and pledged that the judiciary 'will not agree to any change that will have a significant impact on diversity and access to justice.'
She urged lawyers to contribute constructively to the review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act. 'I suggest that the profession needs to unite behind the Bar Council and the Law Society to take advantage of that. It needs to take back the moral high ground.'