Monday, 13 May 2013

The Gateway return to unfunded pupillages?

One of the few things capable of penetrating the haze of the first stage of this year's Pupillage Gateway, from which I have finally emerged, was the latest consequence of the government's proposals to reform Criminal Legal Aid: the withdrawal of 3 leading Criminal chambers from this year's recruitment drive.

The application process is challenging and often frustrating at the best of times, identifying your 12 Gateway choices, battling mean word limits and  most difficult of all, articulating an answer to that perennial question: "why do you want to be a barrister". For those that applied to Charter, Guildhall and/or 9 Bedford Row chambers, the satisfaction at having seemingly negotiated those challenges soon turned to bitterness and resentment as those chambers withdrew from this year's application cycle, in the case of Guildhall Chambers,   as late as a week before the Gateway was due to close. There is no doubt that Charter and 9 Bedford Row withdrew as a result of the uncertainty created by the government's reforms and proposed reforms to Legal Aid. Speaking to The Lawyer earlier this month, members of Charter Chambers variously described how these reforms "destroyed the whole notion of pupillage" for those firms dependent on publicly-funded work:

“The effect of the price competitive tendering is going to destroy hundreds of law firms up and down the country who will not be able to bid for contracts and it will destroy the client base for many, many established institutions.”

"It is not fair to offer a pupillage to people when the uncertainty of whether there will be work for them to do is so great."

9 Bedford Row, the chambers of Anthony Berry QC, were even more eviscerating of the proposals in a statement last week:

"We are dismayed at the government's proposals which will wreak havoc on our
criminal justice system. Client choice will be destroyed, the quality of criminal
advocacy will decline dramatically, the criminal bar will have no future, the system
will become less efficient and miscarriages of justice will more regularly occur. It is
an unfortunate consequence of the uncertainty created by the government that we are
unable to offer pupillages at present."
 We can only assume that Guildhall Chambers was similarly motivated but it is surely no great leap to link the events together. What is clear, is that this is the start of what Michael Turner QC, the Chairman of the Criminal Bar Association foreshadowed in his speech to aspiring barristers at a seminar of making successful pupillage applications in March:

"the long and subtle road started by the previous government, to the extinction of an independent legal profession." 
When the availability of pupillage is already outstripped 8 to 1 by demand, where the criminal bar already provides more training opportunities than any other, the disappearance of these opportunities must be a cause for concern. It was three chambers this year but how many more will it be next year or the year after? And how long will it be before, as the LAPSO and Jackson Reforms start to really bite, will it be before civil sets start withdrawing from pupillage recruitment?

Again we see the implicit government mantra at work: you can have it if you can afford it or get someone else to pay for it for you. In other words, if you want to practice commercial law, whose chambers have no difficulty in funding pupillages, then fine. Especially, when those advocates help maintain our position as legal playground for the oligarchs of the world. If, on the other hand, you want to represent ordinary people, keep the innocent from prison or force the government to adhere to its international obligations, forget it. There is a recession on you know.

That as it may be, am I the only one wondering if this will ultimately lead to the return of the unfunded pupillage? It would undoubtedly be a retrograde step. Unfunded pupillages are essentially a luxury for those of means or for those fortunate enough to secure funding through scholarships. They do nothing for the fledgling cause of increasing accessibility of the profession, which is the reason that the Bar Council introduced minimum pupillage awards in the first place. But if the alternative is legal training being provided by an Eddie Stobart subsidiary; or supermarket franchise; or whatever other Frankestine of legal service provision that the Legal Services Act is prepared to countenance, would it be such a bad thing?

Well yes, it would be. Not just because unfunded pupillages are objectionable on principle but because their return would be a further sign of a decline in the robustness of our legal system in the face of a belligerent policy that is no less damaging for its foundation of baseless rhetoric. But of course, unfunded pupillages are pointless if there is no work for a new tenant to do. And of course, new tenants are the last thing the government wants to see, at least the ones that, one way or other, cost them money. On the other hand, "kill off the trainees and the profession will be left to wither on the vine and die."

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