New Bar Council chair Robert Owen QC has slammed politicians and the popular press for pandering to public prejudices on law and order.
Just two weeks into the job, Owen said politicians were failing the public by not adequately debating legislation, such as proposed police powers to tap telephones, for fear of being seen as soft on crime.
"What concerns me greatly is we are not seeing the debate we should be seeing in parliament because of the fear of both political parties that they will be seen as weaker than the other," said Owen.
He added that judicial confidence was being eroded because the policies of the current and previous governments had been inconsistent. For example, he said, magistrates who had been told in 1991 not to send people to prison were now often being labelled as soft on criminals. Evidence suggested sentencing of criminals had in fact followed a consistent pattern since the 1950s, said Owen.
He was also unhappy that the blame for the spiralling legal aid bill was being laid at the door of lawyers. "The suggestion implicit in press coverage in recent months that lawyers are there milking the system is nonsense."
He was concerned at the number of people who do not qualify for legal aid and cannot afford civil litigation and said he wanted a legal aid contingency fund that would underwrite clients' cases in return for a percentage of any damages they receive.