Duncan Lewis

Lawyers and barrister queuing up to become judges as legal aid cuts brings in gloom

Date: (16 May 2013)    |    

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For the past four years applications for becoming judges has doubled as senior lawyers seek professional sanctuary on the bench. It has been a stampede of sorts for the “the purple lifeboat”. Eagerness for the purple robe of a crown court judge, and its accompanying salary of £129,579, has produced intense competition and a high calibre of appointments for the judiciary.
Among the latest prominent recruits is Robert Jay QC, lead counsel to the Leveson inquiry, who in June will join the high court, where judges wear red robes and receive £174,481 a year. It is not an early entry for the 53 year old by any standards but enthusiasm for judicial office was due to the darkening mood among barristers and solicitors who were bracing themselves for further deep cuts in legal aid.
The legal aid budget has already seen an annual cut of £320m in civil legal aid budget and the Ministry of Justice is seeking to save £220m from the budget for criminal legal aid. Judicial review costs are expected to rise steeply, fees being slashed, contracts are going to be based on competitive bidding and defendants on legal aid would lose the right to choose their solicitor. Firms are expected to merge of close shop.
The lawyers reliant on public funded cases, who were bracing despondency have been further alarmed after the consultation paper was launched by the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling last month.
Michael Turner QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association, whose members have experienced heavy fee cuts over the last four years, has no doubt about the impact of the latest proposals. He says criminal bar would be destroyed. The cuts planned in fees for high cost cases were 30% or more and for graduated fee cases 17.5% or more.
Turner added the barristers were going to find it uneconomic doing publicly-funded cases to remain in chambers. The effect on the number of places for training posts would be upsetting.
In all probability the bar would become the preserve of rich white males and diversity becoming the causality. And corporate firms taking over barristers would eventually work in-house and the independent minded judiciary would disappear as the corporate ethos take over.
Most experienced would be facing the music as firms wouldn’t take expensive lawyers the reason why people are trying to get out early for the bench than they would have done earlier. They were aware that there would be not much left of the publicly funded bar.
The Judicial Appointments Commission records that in 2007/8 there were 2,535 applications for positions as judges or chairs of tribunal (some of them from doctors who sit on specialist tribunals). By 2011/12, the last year for which figures are available, the number of applications had risen to 5,490.
Sir Edward Garnier QC, former solicitor general and Conservative MP, said with people lining up to become circuit and crown court judges, the future of criminal bar was very bleak and with criminal bar struggling to retain its strength in the long term there wouldn’t be any criminal judges coming by.