Hannah Evans moving, factual account of life on the bottom rung of the criminal advocacy ladder has received many plaudits as an attack on the Government’s legal aid cuts. Government cuts in legal aid are a significant and important driver of the precariousness of such work. Yet it is important to acknowledge there are several factors behind the precariousness.
One is the Government cuts. Another is the reduction in the volume of criminal defence work. A third is the self-employed model which makes it harder and riskier for people to enter the profession. This was always true, and the Bar have sought to ameliorate this through minimum payments for pupillage but it is important to recognise that it is self-employment and it’s precarious entry route which is a significant part of the problem. The Bar can either do something about it (which would mean a radical change in its business model) or it can plead for government spending to increase (or not be cut as drastically). Neither approach is unreasonable, but only one approach has much chance of happening.
The three things combined mean a reduction in the size of the Bar, the number of criminal pupillages and (unless students wake up and smell the rather poor smelling BPTC coffee) an increase in the riskiness of entry. That increase in riskiness will probably put more working class/’poster girl’ candidates off but, I am afraid, the idea that public spending cuts are going to be successfully resisted on the basis that they are necessary to solve the Bar’s diversity problems is, to put it mildly, unlikely. Fusion will come quicker, if it comes at all; with a very small rump of heavyweight barrister advocates ultimately selected from solicitors firms (or ABS/Barrister hybrids) rather than through a pool of BPTC candidates fighting for diminishing pupillages.
Indeed, in terms of quality, the criminal defence system is more fairly described as precarious than world class and yet the government is showing little sign of listening to arguments that significant cuts in real and absolute cost will further damage quality (which they will). A government that does not care about basic criminal justice is unlikely to be swayed by social mobility arguments. Only catastrophic failures, like serious trials not running, are likely to persuade them. There are some signs such catastrophes may shortly be upon us but the Bar will have to sort out its diversity problems on its own.