The recent action has been a rare, and admirable, example of legal camaraderie
They might not have wanted to call it anything as vulgar as a ‘strike’.
Hand-tailored barrister gowns and wigs may have replaced the donkey jackets you’d expect to see on a more traditional picket line. And no-one was expecting this protest to turn ugly – unless you count the accidental scuffing of the odd Mulberry bag.
But a strike this was. On Monday 6th January 2014, solicitors and barristers made legal history. For the first time ever lawyers abandoned their posts for a nationwide demonstration against the government’s proposed legal aid cuts. The placards went up: ‘Save British justice’. And the criminal courts of England and Wales fell silent.
But does anyone really care what a bunch of overpaid lawyers think?
Well, actually, this might well spell something of a PR boost for a profession typically beset with charges of financial greed and intellectual arrogance. Sure, there are those who see the strike as just another example of lawyers out to protect their fat-cat salaries.
But the strike appears to have garnered considerable sympathy too (no doubt helped by a few skills in constructing a half-decent argument). This has proved a chance for lawyers to remind us of the values at the heart of law: the defence of the people, both rich and poor, even against the power of the state.
It has been a timely reminder that there are many UK lawyers working today who do not earn anything like City salaries. It seems that many criminal lawyers are in fact working for less than £30,000 a year.
Lawyers at their best
The argument goes that with legal aid cuts, fewer graduates are likely to choose criminal law resulting in poor legal representation for the most vulnerable in society. Worse, many firms are likely to collapse, leaving the whole justice system in disarray.
Some will say this is legal hyperbole at its best – that even with the cuts, the UK’s legal aid system will be one of the most generous in Europe. We can but wait and see which argument wins out.
But in the meantime, there is something to be said for this new-found legal camaraderie. This isn’t about lawyers eating what they kill or even eating each other’s faces off for a stab at an increasingly elusive partnership. It’s about standing up for the rule of law.
This has been a rare chance for lawyers to appear at their best as the defenders of the liberty of the people. It may not change anything about the future of the justice system; it may not change a single government policy.
But perhaps it will challenge a few ingrained perceptions, and convince some that choosing law isn’t just a question of money. CP