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Bar leaders trumpet legal aid deal for senior lawyers, while juniors are left in cold

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This year’s annual Bar Council shindig exposes the stark difference in fortunes between the young and established ends of the profession

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This week’s “I’m all right, Jack” prize goes to Nicholas Lavender, a top commercial silk and chairman of the Bar Council of England and Wales.

Lavender QC told hundreds of delegates at this year’s Bar Council annual conference at the weekend that — as bizarre as Legal Cheek readers might find this — he often faces the Monty Python-style question: what has the Bar Council ever done for me?

In response he cites several recent achievements to boost the spirits of all barristers, not least the council’s hard won deal with the Ministry of Justice over proposed legal aid cuts.

The Wicked Warlock of Westminster, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling, had proposed a slashing of the advocates graduated fee scheme — which applies to lawyers appearing in the Crown Courts — as part of his wholesale bonfire of legal aid rates.

But in a smoke-filled-room deal cut last spring, the bar managed to convince the MoJ that doing so would put a serious crimp in the Bollinger consumption of criminal QCs. The ministry conceded, but somewhat crucially, cuts pertaining to magistrates’ court work — where junior barristers and solicitors mostly appear — went ahead.

Law firms were especially furious, not least because they viewed their own representation body — the Law Society — as being complicit in the deal that also saw advisory and police station work slashed; while the junior criminal bar was left gob-smacked and befuddled.

Far from being discrete about a deal that arguably looked after senior barristers while hanging the junior profession out to dry, Lavender (pictured centre below) was keen to trumpet the arrangement as a huge Bar Council success.

“We helped ensure that all parts of the Bar were speaking with one voice,” he told the weekend conference in London.

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Doubtless, the few junior criminal law barristers remaining in practice will be eternally grateful for that alleged harmony. And they will be likewise cheered by the Bar’s own summary of Lavender’s thoughts. “Bar Council chief says barristers are here to stay,” proclaimed a pre-speech press statement.

But then Lavender’s confidence is likely to be affected by experience of the QC’s own practice area. According to his chambers website, the Serle Court silk deals in “a broad range of commercial litigation, arbitration and other forms of dispute resolution”, with cases involving Hollywood film finance litigation, as well as high-profile financial services sector investigations. “His trust cases,” says the Serle site, “include the long-running Weissfisch litigation in the Bahamas” — a jurisdiction in which legal aid cuts are unlikely to bite.

Elsewhere at the conference, there were more intentionally comic moments. Not least the farewell speech from Sir Alan Moses, who has stood down as an Appeal Court judge to take over the curious role of being the first chairman of the recently launched Independent Press Standards Organisation.

Unlike the bar establishment, Moses wasn’t so keen to tiptoe around government sensitivities. He lashed out at Prime Minister David Cameron’s reshuffling out of cabinet Dominic Grieve and Sir Edward Garnier QC as Attorney General and Solicitor General, respectively, for what many interpreted as their defence of the Human Rights Act.

“The government’s two leading lawyers lost their jobs because they dared to give their opinions,” Moses told the conference. “Can you imagine how dangerous that is?”

Moses also lambasted Grayling’s proposals to impose a residency test on the granting of legal aid, saying: “We have a non-lawyer Lord Chancellor whose idea of the rule of law is to deprive those he describes as foreigners from having access to the courts.”

Rounding out the bar’s annual shindig was the business card raffle, which is meant to ensure delegates — having bagged their continuing professional development points — don’t slope off before the closing speeches.

Sadly for the organisers, that gambit didn’t seem to work, as conference chairman Richard Atkins QC, the leader of the Midlands Circuit, was left to “accept on behalf” of a long list of winners who had escaped early a whole range of trinkets.

One he couldn’t accept on behalf of a departed delegate was a prize hamper from the Queen’s grocers, Fortnum & Masons, which Atkins rather shamefacedly had to admit, appeared “to have been pinched”.

All of which raised the question, if someone is ever brought to trial, will there be a young barrister left in practice to defend the alleged tea leaf?