Hundreds of family barristers and members of the Family Law Bar Association spent their Saturday morning yesterday meeting to discuss the proposed legal aid reforms and the publication of the report on the Family Bar, a substantial piece of research conducted by the Public Policy Unit at King's College London arising from the 'Week at a Glance Survey' conducted across the family bar in October.
The mood was sombre but defiant. Through video links to the central London venue from Brighton, Bournemouth, Bristol, Winchester, Swansea, Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Newcastle and Manchester barristers expressed their concern about the impact of the cuts on both the bar and their lay clients - vulnerable parents and children who rely on the publicly funded bar to ensure that their corner is fought.
Much was discussed, but some of the key points echoed up and down the country were the failure of the LSC to make efforts to rein in the excessive costs of experts fees prior to slashing the advocacy budget, and the exodus from publicly funded work that would inevitably follow the cuts if made - creating legal aid deserts in terms of local availability of both solicitors firms and local bars.
Desmond Browne QC, Chairman of the Bar, attended having hot-footed it from an interview on the Today programme earlier that morning (in which the Justice Minister Bridget Prentice had asserted that an extra £4m had been ploughed into advocacy in care cases, without reference to the fact that this was a redistribution of funds towards base fees as a result of savings made from the reductions in SIPs payments, in fact an overall reduction in spend).
Lucy Theis QC, Chair of the FLBA, reported on the progress of meetings with ministers and the LSC, and on the recently discovered corruption of the financial and statistical data held by the LSC which forms the basis of the calculations for the proposals, which was an issue identified and raised by the FLBA and the Bar Council's statistician Martin Chalkley who had been asked on behalf of members to scrutinise that data.
There was much concern that members of the family bar are perceived by the public and characterised by the media as 'fat cats', but some comfort was taken from the contents of the Kings report which demonstrates that the family bar already work long and anti-social hours for comparatively low pay, and suffer high levels of emotional burnout. The report is embargoed until Monday, although this does not seem to have prevented the national press from reporting on it's contents already.
It was noted with some surprise that the bar had been criticised for failing to respond to the recently closed survey relating to SIPs, when in fact the FLBA had prepared a detailed response on behalf of its 2000 odd members based on membership feedback. Members were urged to respond to the present consultation individually by the deadline of 18 March.
Pink Tape will carry a post setting out some of the statistics contained in the report tomorrow, and as the national press report over the course of the next week links will be added.
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