A way to cut budgets at one stroke
22 October 1996
One of the most expensive aspects of our adversarial legal system is paying lawyers to stand on their feet to argue cases in open court.
Not only is it an expensive operation in itself, but it has a knock-on effect in terms of the expense of listing, judicial time and so on. It has, therefore, both direct and indirect cost implications.
Everyone is aware of this but whenever the cost of law is discussed, particularly by those in powerful positions, it is skirted around. The only Lord Chancellor to address the issue, Lord Mackay, had some success with The Courts and Legal Services Act 1990, but has seen that turn, in some part, to ashes - mainly as a result of the activities of the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Committee on Legal Education and Conduct.
That committee has managed to achieve by cautious inactivity what could not be achieved at the time of the passage of the act by the Bar Council.
Lord Irvine of Lairg QC, at the recent Bar Conference, seemed disinclined to tackle head-on the cost of advocacy coupled with the impact restrictive practices. Not for him the dangerous ground of making new policy about such a sensitive topic!
That is the background to one particular area that is crying out for attention. Everyone will have read the recent articles about the Crown Prosecution Service, written by the Director of Public Prosecutions, Barbara Mills.
Everyone knows of the pressures on the CPS budget. Everyone knows there is a morale problem in the service and, depending on who one speaks to, how serious that morale problem is.
What I find unacceptable is the fact that, at a stroke, the budget of the CPS could be transformed if its lawyers were given new rights of audience.
We all know this - Lord Irvine knows this, the Attorney General knows this - but still nothing is done nor is very much said.
Meanwhile, those at the coal-face of the CPS have to put up with uncertainty, letters written to them suggesting that they might wish to take redundancy and budgets still being cut dramatically.
At the same time, they know that this is happening primarily because hard political decisions will not or cannot be taken. So they have to sit back and endure such vicissitudes.
Is it too much to ask that those who have the conduct of this matter in their power should now give it their serious and urgent attention?
It is quite extraordinary that the CPS is the only prosecution service in the world that has no rights of audience in its principal theatre of operations.
In addition, it is not fair to those who are asked to undertake a very difficult and demanding task, that they should see their careers held hostage because of the inability of decision-makers to cross what they consider to be the Rubicon and allow full rights of audience to the employed members of the service.
I find the position of the DPP herself beyond explanation. A silk of proven ability who one day is allowed a right of audience as a practising barrister and, on the following day on taking up her position, is barred forever from the courts. It makes no sense to anyone.
The CPS, as I have said before, is staffed by people who are our colleagues. They have created, in a somewhat difficult climate, a service that is improving all the time. They now need to have the confidence-boosting decision of allowing them rights of audience in the Crown Court.
This right will have a three-fold effect: it will give them the boost they deserve; it will have the benefit of taking the pressure off their budget; and, above all, it will create a career structure that can only lead to an improved service for all of us.
We may have different views about rights of audience but, surely, this step is one we can all support.