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Cherie Blair backs radical plan for legal profession to buy junior barristers’ debt

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Greece-style debt relief — for rookie criminal barristers

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Top QC Cherie Blair has come out in favour of a radical idea to buy the debts of cash-strapped junior legal aid barristers, as Criminal Bar Association (CBA) chief Mark Fenhalls QC reveals more details of the scheme exclusively to Legal Cheek.

Writing on LinkedIn, employment law specialist Blair — who comes from a working class background — describes the CBA’s plan, of which public mention was first made last week, as “imaginative”. She adds that “the costs of legal training are a real problem in encouraging a diverse legal profession”.

Here is a screenshot of her post in full:

cherie

The link Blair posted is to a paywalled interview in last week’s The Times with CBA chief Mark Fenhalls QC about referral fees at the criminal bar. Hidden away at the bottom is a couple of paragraphs about students turning their back on the criminal bar.

It is here that appears the first public mention of Fenhall’s idea for a scheme “in which the Bar/Inns of Court would ‘buy’ students’ debts” that would give the government “its money up front and write off the rest, knowing it would take years to recover anyway.” The article continues: “Over time, the barrister would pay the Bar the rest”, before quoting Fenhalls:

If we can wipe out these debts at the start of their careers, it might just give us a chance to stop the drain, particularly of young woman, who are hard to retain through motherhood. It is horrifying that as we near the centenary of the first woman barrister we are struggling with this.

Legal Cheek caught up with Fenhalls over the weekend and he told us some more about the idea — which has been the subject of Inns of Court gossip throughout the summer. He explained:

The bar needs to try and find a way of persuading Government to sell us the debts of those who seek a career at the publicly funded bar, at a suitable price. The Treasury will receive money ‘up front’ and help restore the public finances now, instead of waiting decades for money that will probably never arrive.

The CBA boss, who is a white collar crime specialist working from 23 Essex Street, added that the driver of the scheme is to boost access to a branch of the profession that is becoming the bastion of the privileged thanks to low pay and minimal job security.

With the lower level legal aid work which is having its funding removed traditionally being a way for rookie barristers to cut their teeth, it seems increasingly likely that today’s Cherie Blairs will opt to become solicitors and leave the bar for the rich kids — unless something dramatic happens.

15 Comments

Not Amused

I have a lot of sympathy with legal aid practitioners. However this, “the Bar/Inns of Court” will pay attitude, is extremely concerning.

Already the privately paid bar subsidises the legal aid bar through the practicing certificate fee. Already Inn money is being used to pay half of criminal pupillage awards.

The Inns are a charity and supporting a failing business is not a charitable function. It does not matter that the reason that business is failing is because the major client is the government and the client is cutting the rates it is prepared to pay. It is an independent business which should not be propped up by charity funds.

My sympathy with the legal aid bar is no reason to force extra tax on me. The only reason the privately paid bar is ever suggested as a source of funds is because we are perceived as having money. But respectfully, it is our money. The criminal bar is not entitled to our money to support their failing business.

If I am to pay for the criminal bar then at least, like any investor/share holder, give me the power to control how it is run. I would slash QC pay in order to raise junior earnings. I would probably either totally freeze recruitment or slash pupillages (because unquestionably there has been over recruitment). I would also look to mergers and staff cuts. Those 4 things are what any investor would do who found themselves faced with a failing business.

Is it proposed that I can do that? No. It is merely proposed that I will pay.

(19)(3)

Anonymous

This is certainly a better use of the Inn’s funds than propping up chambers who want to take on pupils they can’t afford and/or give adequate work to. And it’s probably a better use of money than some of the scholarship funds, which often seems to end up in the pockets of people who already have well funded pupillages with significant draw-downs and in any event just helps BPTC providers sustain their ridiculous fees.

If the Inns wish to redirect some of their charitable efforts to relieving hard-up juniors with high expenses and poor cash-flow of having to pay commercial interest rates on their bar school loans then this seems like a better plan than some of the other ones we have had of late. If it is on a 0% interest, deferred repayment basis, the scheme would run a marginal loss in line with inflation and administration. My old circuit used to do something similar to this. It really helped the circuit’s new practitioners.

(1)(1)

Not Amused

1) We have the Charities Commission for a reason. Charities can’t just give money to random people just because they feel like it
2) Giving free cash to barristers just because they are billing low figures is not a charitable purpose
3) Where would the ability of the CBA to redirect charity money end?
– I have a standing order with centre point, does the CBA get to appropriate that?
– Sean Jones’ campaign has raised £200k for save the children, should that be appropriated?

The legal aid bar is failing as a business. Injecting charity money to prop it up is silly and a waste of charity money. Taxing members of the other bars is also not a solution (because eventually you run out of other peoples’ money and because it is not morally acceptable).

The solution, if there is one, is major structural reform of the legal aid bar and a more benevolent government. It is not to appropriate charity money or tax innocents to prop up a failing business.

(1)(0)

The Bar Necessities

I’m not wholly convinced you’ve actually read what I wrote. The suggestion I make is not really charitable at all–it is about helping new practitioners with cashflow problems survive until those problems resolve themselves (which, if you can recall being a baby, tend to if you’re billing enough). The charity, such that it is, lies in not charging commercial interest rates and deferring repayment. The loss would be limited, and one that the Inns are entitled to treat as acceptable if it avoids people leaving publicly funded practices that are viable on a revenue basis but not a cash basis.

Your suggestion that you would be ‘taxed’ is hysterical. And wrong. We don’t pay anything directly to the Inns (unless you rent a building from them, but if you do it is no longer your money and you’re free to move your chambers out of the Inns) How they spend their money is a matter for them. As I say, it seems like a better use of it than matched pupillage awards and scholarships that ignore the students’ means.

Are the Inns charities? They are commercial landlords, so I’d be surprised if they are… I don’t think there is anything in your charities analogy.

(1)(0)

Anonymous

There’s been a longrunning debate over whether the Inns are charities. They control some charitable funds, certainly (eg the Educational Awards Fund of Lincoln’s Inn) but it is unlikely, for several reasons, that they themselves fall within the definition of a charity, nor are they registered with the Commission as such. They are unincorporated associations of the members for the time being.

(1)(0)

Not Amused

You are entitled to your view. Where we disagree is:

1) You think Inn money should be used to prop up baby legal aid barristers. I think that is not an acceptable use of Inn money and definitely can’t/mustn’t come from any of the charitable foundations/funds.
2) I think that charging the Bar directly (which must be what the original quote means) would be unacceptable. You either disagree about the meaning of the quote or agree with me that it would be unacceptable but for some reason think it definitely won’t happen.

As you agree with me that Inn money shouldn’t be used to fund criminal pupillages and as you suggest (and I agree with you) that Inn money shouldn’t be wasted on the BPTC providers, we are hardly at loggerheads.

I would rather the Inns used their money for charitable purposes. I do not think that propping up the criminal bar is a good use because 1) it seems morally wrong to me and 2) it will only encourage further cuts if the Inns (and Bar) are seen as a cash cow.

(incidentally the change in how the PCF levy is raised is a subsidy by tax)

(1)(0)

The Bar Necessities

I understand what you say in respect of using Inns funds to support new practitioners. But what charitable ends should the Inns spend their money on if not promoting access to the profession? And if that can include giving people money to meet the cost of training I don’t see why it can’t include running a no-cost bridging loan scheme in which the money is repaid. Provided the money is repaid, it can achieve more than the Inns currently do by simply handing out somewhere in the region of five million quid a year to students. I would think a repayment scheme could effectively run for ever on the combined scholarship awards doled out in a single year.

I don’t read any of the quotes above as suggesting that the money for the proposed scheme should come from the Bar Council or BSB (i.e the organisations that we are required to pay money to). It suggests the Bar generally, but the only organisations referred to are the Inns of Court. Realistically, if the scheme were run the only people that could fund it would be the Inns of Court.

(0)(0)

Not Amused

I agree that one of the best uses of Inn money is promoting access to the profession. I would support a scheme aimed at all baby practitioners. But that isn’t the proposal. The proposal is special treatment for one area, and really what they want is a subsidy to shore up a failing business.

I would rather we looked to other long term solutions to the failing nature of the legal aid bar AND supported access to all areas of the bar.

(0)(0)

Chug

Ma, she’s left her padded cell again!

(12)(0)

Anonymous

This sounds like a good idea on the surface.

However, this idea only encourages BPP, UoL etc to keep their ridiculous fees so high.

Let’s tackle the root cause of the problem and force these pseudo universities to put their fees down, or put them out of business altogether.

The Inns of Court could club together to run a fit for purpose BPTC, which would be about a quarter of the length of the current course.

(14)(0)

Anonymous

Agree that a package is the way forward rather than the inns stepping in.

If the inns control the training and set pricing accordingly, they could buy the debt safe in the knowledge it can be clawed back. Buying bad toxic debt from other providers churning out crap barristers is unfair on the inns. The inns could work on a funding model with a financier for both the pre and post qualification stages. It may just work.

(3)(0)

The Bar Necessities

I think the premise is that it is limited to new practitioners, not everyone who finishes the Bar course (or even everyone who gets pupillage). As I said, my old circuit had a similar loans scheme. The contract provided that you had to pay it back in full, immediately, if you left the Bar.

(1)(0)

Anonymous

Here’s another proposal, you also purchase the debts of those who self-fund the LPC have demonstrated excellent academic performance, have secured work experience in the legal industry and have still failed to obtain a Training Contract

(1)(1)

Happy Hameron Day

Why?

(2)(2)

Anonymous

Self-funding the LPC is a foolish idea. Get alternative experience first and only undertake the LPC once a TC has been obtained.
(Possible exception: you’re aiming for a firm which only hires those who have completed LPC – uncommon in my experience.

(4)(1)

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