What did you find the most demanding in your role last year as Chairman of the Bar?
Dealing with the Government, in particular the Ministry of Justice (MOJ). Continually trying to persuade them to re-consider their position in the light of our submissions. We had a fantastic start in avoiding Price Competitive Tendering and One Case One Fee for the Bar but since then there has been no movement. They have been completely inflexible about the cuts – they haven’t budged at all. Homicide fees have already been cut by 40%, and they are looking to further cut them by about 12.5%. No other public body has been hit as hard as legal aid barristers and solicitors. We have no equal bargaining power with the MOJ. I have found it incredibly disheartening to see people giving up their practice due to not being able to make ends meet. There is undoubtedly a valid concern about our legal system being dismantled and there is widespread agreement the Junior Bar is not paid well; even the Lord Chancellor thinks so. These cuts will make a career at the publicly funded Bar almost unattainable for candidates from less wealthy backgrounds, who come out of university with substantial debt already. This is causing a reverse trend in social mobility at the Bar, which is skewing representation. The MOJ say they have to cut legal aid, but there is also no moral compass in doing so. It saddens me to say we are heading towards a two-tier justice system. Unlike in the health sector, individuals cannot insure themselves against the costs of defending themselves against an allegation of crime. It may be that companies and big institutions should be required to insure themselves against the cost of defending their officers or employees.
How can the Bar survive the further proposed cuts by the Government?
Some sections will diversify into regulatory, health and safety work etc, and some will unfortunately shrink. Not everyone can survive the cuts. But some can take control and charge of their future. The chambers that refashion by making themselves leaner stand a better chance. One thing I’ve noticed is common law sets coming back in the provinces. In one set I visited in Yorkshire, the juniors used to do crime, family or civil. Now, they keep all three disciplines going for the first few years.
What have been some of the highlights of your career?
Taking silk was the high point. Standing up in the Old Bailey on my first murder trial in silk was an extraordinary feeling and an absolute privilege. It really is the best career.
Why did you want to become a barrister?
I was in the debating team in the upper sixth at school, and went to debate at another school. We did well, and beat them. The teacher from the other side took it personally, and told me I should become a barrister, which was not meant as a compliment. I had a place at university to read English and I changed it to study Law. I think I have an acute sense of fairness, and I think this has always been a part of my makeup.
We have what many consider to be the finest judiciary system in the world. As a criminal law specialist, how important a role does the publicly funded Bar play in ensuring this reputation continues?
There is only one Bar; you change the reputation of the part, you change the reputation of the whole. If the quality of practitioners at the Criminal and other publicly funded areas of the Bar is reduced then the service provided will be lessened. Once you damage the reputation for skill and expertise in any part of the Bar then you damage the whole. Our reputation internationally is currently extraordinarily high. Our system means that London is the place of choice for international litigation and English law is the law of choice for a huge number of international agreements and contracts. We make a huge contribution to GDP; if the reputation of our legal system is damaged then that will be in jeopardy.
The publicly funded Bar plays an enormously important role in maintaining the reputation of our criminal system. The majority of judges sitting in the Crown Courts have been criminal practitioners. We have to maintain a profession that continues to try to represent society as a whole. Over the last 20 years the Bar has steadily become more diverse and therefore more representative. I am totally against positive discrimination by way of quotas, but as there is a 50/50 intake of men and women at the Bar, we should be moving more quickly to an equal representation of the genders on the bench.
What would your advice be to a junior barrister reading this?
To actually try and take charge of your practice. Think very seriously about what your strengths and weaknesses are, and how best to fit them to what you do. Practise what you do well and push yourself to your own limits.
How do you relax?
Last year was much more of a constant slog, it was so intense. The intellectual rigour and emotional stress of working at the Bar mean that you need to be able to switch off. I have always been good at that, and don’t think it is something you can teach yourself. When I can I like to go to the theatre, listen to music and watch cricket. Although the recent Test series has turned that into a bit of an ordeal too.
Maura McGowan QC was interviewed by Guy Hewetson of Hewetson Shah