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We Do So Much for Free Already - How Can You Cut the Legal Industry Further?

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There was a recent news item on the prospect of imminent industrial action being mooted by those working in healthcare, because the government wanted to resile its promise to increase NHS worker pay by one per cent, instead freezing pay for a third year.

I couldn't help but wonder what the level of outrage would be if the government chose to cut pay by between 17.5% and 30% - which is what they are threatening to do in the legal system.

Indeed, I thought of how nice it would be to have a pay freeze, or at the very least, be paid for the work I do.

The previous week I attended a conference on murder, spent a day with a difficult client explaining complicated points in an extremely serious case, had a mention at the Bailey, done a sentence and skeleton argument on a drugs trial, attended a PCMH, had an evening conference in a new matter and attended a pre-trial review in a fraud case.

My take home pay for that week? Nothing.

The only thing we get paid for is trials, or those parts of trials that aren't included within the brief fee.

None of this is news to anyone at the criminal bar. We all have our own horror stories, know people who have had to leave the bar, or been forced into bankruptcy. It bears repeating though as it highlights something that has become lost in recent discussions on whether to strike or not.

The rates we currently work for are insulting, demeaning and in no way reflect the level of work we do or the seriousness of the responsibilities we bear. Yet somehow, this seems to have been forgotten.

We argue about the proposals to cut fees by 17.5% whilst forgetting that fees have, on average been dropping every year since 1997. The majority of the criminal bar is owed thousands of pounds, by a dishonest LAA who appear to reject or reduce claims as a matter of course. We argue as to what we should be paid next year without any sort of united stand as to what we are owed for work done in months or years gone by.

It is against this backdrop that I read of discussions as to whether to strike, particularly those who say that the time is not right, such action could turn the press or public against us and is unaffordable for those at the junior bar.

To me, the issue is clear. We are facing nothing less than an attempt by the Ministry of Justice to destroy the independent criminal bar. I doubt anyone still believes the MoJ will listen to the evidence, or engage with us unless compelled to do so. Work at our current rates is almost unsustainable - at the new rates survival is inconceivable.

To me, the answer is simple; we need to show them that they cannot. They take solace in decades of inaction by us, our lack of unity, and our worry in how we will be perceived by the public and the press. They will be laughing whilst the independent criminal bar withers and dies.

Of course it is true that to strike may be unaffordable to those at the junior bar. Yet if we do not take action, the junior bar will be killed off, more senior and established members will be left to earn what living they can before moving into better paid areas. The criminal bar will become a playground for the wealthy to practice as a hobby. Instead of the criminal bar attracting the best advocates, we will move towards a USA-style model, with law students or trainees doing a 'pro bono' stint as public defenders before moving onto bigger and better things.

I don't relish the prospect of a strike but I care about my profession, my clients and my family. I should be able to provide for my family, whilst working hard in worthwhile job. I have difficulty understanding those within our profession who don't wish to strike when our very profession's existence is threatened. When you are fighting for your survival it matters not how hard the fight is, if to lose is to die then the only option is to fight.

So if the call goes out, I shall be on the barricades, I shall be fighting for our profession and I hope you shall too.