Sitting at my desk, here in Beautiful Down Town Narberth, I was having one of those moments of whimsy that occasionally overtake the enfeebled brain of “men of a certain age” [not a dalliance with a “Pussycat Doll” or of thrashing a Maserati through the Italian Alps with Dame Helen Mirren laughing gaily in the passenger seat - more “shall I type this in Tacoma Small Cap, Porkys or Eras Demi ITC?” such are the thoughts of a chap who wakes up of a morning with the hope that he will see a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker on his bird feeder as he sips his morning cup of Twinings] and hoping for some cosmic inspiration in the penning of this article.
Then the divine Helen John [award winning Trainee Legal Executive for Hains and Lewis and bringer of regular cups of coffee plus her mother’s exquisite Welsh cakes on a, happily, regular basis] delivered the Law Society Gazette [12th March 2009 £4.50-Sooo glad I don’t have to pay], and suddenly I transformed, “Watchmen” like, into the angry young man of yesteryear, all spluttering rage, onset apoplexy and righteous indignation. A bit like the Green Hulk-shirt ripping and trouser legs fraying [except rather too many portions of “Pizza Mumford” in the much lamented Trattoria Pulcinella accompanied by a few bottles of Verediccio plus the penury of consultancy have achieved all that without the need to exposure to a large dose of radiation].
So what, you may well ask, prompted this desperate reaction?
Jack Straw did.
“Staw’s Pay Warning to Legal Aid Lawyer’s” proclaimed the banner headline.
“What tosh is this?” I roared. And this before I had even scanned the small print. Well apparently, in his “Stark vision of the future”, the “Man of Straw” [see- I did listen at lectures] thinks that those of us unfortunate enough, and demented enough to remain “dependant on state funding, would be wise to reconsider our expectations”
Well, old fruit, I have been “reconsidering” my expectations since about 1994, when there had not been any increase in rates for over three years. Still waiting for one fifteen years on. If I reconsidered any more potential cuts I would be forced to sell matches on street corners. I have a pretty bloody “stark” vision of the past as well.
Mr Straw goes on to say that while it is entirely “proper” that us pariahs be paid “Decent Rates” [ pay rise coming then?] running successful law businesses….is not the Purpose of Law.”
So we can be useless at our jobs then, can we? I mean why bother to perform properly? Let’s all be greasy toe rags. Are we supposed to have an ambition amputation? To conduct ourselves with all the vim and vigour of a lettuce? What precisely does he mean? AH- but what of the Government drive to make sure we all comply with the cornucopia of regulation and further education necessary to continue in this “Veil of Tears”? Is that out of the widow then? Not according to Mr Williamson of the SRA [see below!] Some mixed messaging here methinks. So unlike this switched on party who loom over us. [Sarcasm-lowest form of wit.]
He questioned whether legal aid lawyers should expect to be paid more than other public sector employees.
Jackie Boy, why not get one of the dozen or so mandarins that circle your desk like sycophantic moths round the light of genius that emanates from your wondrous charismatic cranium [sadly obscured in the photo of said potentate on front page of the Gazetta del Misery, by a blue fedora that DIDN‘T come from the sale rail at M&S], to do some real work for the £100K plus guaranteed peerage and pension that they siphon off . Ask them to look at a comparison. Whisper it softly Bach, We Do Not Get Paid More, We Get Paid Less. Much Less.
Legal Aid practitioners are already aware that theirs is a vocation, not a path to riches.
It is only a matter of time before Mr Straw will expect us to pay for the privilege of working for the underprivileged.
Perhaps he envisages a time when we become a semi-religious sect, wandering around the land, visiting the dwindling number of “Justice Centres”, chewing on a lump of sheep dung, wearing homespun cassocks [my thirty year old gown already serves this role] and a goat hair vest and flagellating ourselves before the altar like bench, with whips made of tied together Admiralty tags ending with a couple of those evil looking things with jaws like a piranha that are used to remove staples [when they are too tight to get a fingernail to accomplish removal], muttering incantations to the computer which by then will have replaced Justices Clerks, Magistrates and DJ’s.
And while he’s at it, why not extend the “Six months to be a Teacher” idea? Lets round up a few of the illegal immigrants, send them to the “Shady But Quick Law Kindergarten” and get them to “do something useful for a change“ [Not my words!]. After all they only have to defend a few scroats, keep the prisons full so that the voters know that “New Labour is tough on Crime”, make sure that a kind of lip service is paid to the mentally ill, the disabled, the injured, children and all the other vulnerable folk of our polarising society. Can’t be that difficult, can it. I mean old Tone and Sherry-baby did it before becoming proper people, didn’t they?
Can’t you just see the scene- Mr Straw’s palatial office in Westminster, the Great Man seated on a throne of velvet surrounded by Nubian slaves fanning him with Ostrich feathers and peeling grapes, a couple of his Merchant Banker Mates trying hard to push the latest bonus paid from Government handouts into their already bulging wallets, gently conversing about the merits of three weeks ski-ing or a month in the Caribbean.
“What about the worrying state of civil and criminal courts your eminence?” says a minion with half a brain cell and a social conscience [won‘t last long then],” Horrendous backlogs, negligence claims for shoddy work, trillions of cases before the EU Human Rights Court. I tell you the natives are revolting!”
“Yes, Disgusting aren’t they? And that’s just the lawyers, never mind their dreadful punters! Let them eat soap!”
Make no mistake, this isn’t just a “Dumbing Down” of professional qualification, it is the next concerted attack on Justice, and access to Justice. It would seem that the next step from no disclosure worth the name, the listing of trials in five minutes from charge and the total weighting of the system to secure convictions, is the abolition of costs from Central Funds. The last bastion for those who are not Guilty, who have managed to secure representation and who SHOULD be entitled to recover their costs, GONE.
The hypocrisy of the “Justice” Minister/Lord Chancellor’s comments, at a time when the profession is being asked to PAY large sums from their own pockets to maintain standards by Accreditation and continuing Compulsory education, beggars belief. Are the Government giving any grants towards this? Answers on a postcard……
Does the Government really think that any but the most senior of QC’s makes big money from legal aid? Surely the iniquities of the American Legal System, which we seem to be forced slavishly to follow has been some sort of a warning. And has all the genius of the post war welfare state been poured away down the sinkhole of greed and spin?
And if nothing else, these comments have made sure that a generation of potential social lawyers will have been utterly discouraged from entering practise.
It takes six years to qualify as a Solicitor or Barrister. Three or four to reach the first rung as a Legal Executive. A Civil Servant can join straight from School, and expect, and demand a far better wage than his or her counterpart battling to make their way in legal practise.
I don’t believe that any of us at the coal face expect to become millionaires, but we can surely expect to be properly remunerated for a horribly difficult and demanding career, one that guarantees long hours, frustration, encounters with difficult and problematic clients and situations.
Tell you what. Why don’t you just say that anyone daft enough to do legal aid work will receive a minimum wage of say £30,000. A sort of Public Defender /Lawyer system. We can work from home, thus saving on offices, use a pool of government secretaries, see clients in CAB’s and Law Centres, and not have to worry about anything but doing a decent job for the client. Oh- we would like the holidays, pensions, career breaks and flexibility of movement that is accorded as of right to these public sector employees we do so much better than. And the pay rises. Double time for overtime, Police Station visits. No prep in the evenings unless its payment or time off in lieu. Do I feel a stress related illness coming on? NO -because I and my colleagues are used to working until the job is done! It could revolutionise the public sector. It could ensure independent representation and access to justice.
Or why not realise that the system that WAS in place before your lot took a carving knife to it actually WORKED, and gave value for money?
A society without rules and without people to argue about the rights of others who have not the skills or education to argue for themselves, is a morally bankrupt society. If Mr Straw gets his way we will live in a country that has no justice for any but those who have the resources to buy it. I seem to recall this New Labour Party’s creed had a manifesto that promised otherwise.
The rest of the slimline Gazette was not much of a harbinger of joy either.
“Local Authorities forming coalitions in London to “drive down” spending on private practise lawyers.”
“Barristers threatening legal aid exodus.”
“Government Litigation” to force people to vote [don’t worry, I shall!]
And the SRA telling us that the recession and its inevitable pressures and demands, will not mean a lighter touch on compliance.
“Read All About it! Comet the size of Mars due to impact with earth in 3 hours. Government guarantees only legal aid lawyers will be struck!”
At least the Conservatives are proposing funding for free legal advice, although it’s the CAB and Law Centres they are pulling for.
All this and we lost in Paris as well! Never mind, Wales Sevens are World Champions, Manchester City are on the up, and still in the Uefa Cup [as I write], and Andy Owen paid me five Euros when we played in Spain last month. [he also had to buy all the other tourists on the mighty Accies trip a beer after what can only be described as “Showboating gone mad”. After SIX seconds of the match against the Andalucian Veterans Champions the ball reaches said partner of Leo Abse & Cohen. A step-over, a failed nutmeg, a slip, Mr Brain had left the building and we were a goal to the bad. Robhinio it wasn’t! As he reads this he will no doubt be replaying his impersonation of a cross between Basil Fawlty and Rodin’s “The Thinker”-head clutched in hands whilst in a mighty unattractive squatting pose, rocking mournfully on his heels and emitting a low howl of despair.] To be fair the “Solva Smoothie” has had a great season- which is our thirtieth as a club.
Of course Cardiff Academicals was founded by lawyers, and although many other professions [architects, doctors, medics, accountants, teachers, engineers] have graced the grumpy owl- badged shirt, the solicitors, barristers, legal executives and academics of South Wales have been the mainstay of the club - Em “the Cat” Pierce, Paul “Harry Horse” Warren, JCR Rees QC, his barrister son Chris, David Aubrey QC, Meirion Davies, His Honour David Wynn Morgan, DJ Martin Brown, Graham” Compo” Davies of Blackwood, Jeremy Bird of Merthyr, Matt Ragett of Milford Haven, Neil Foley of Pontypridd, Paul “Spawny” Malekin, Paul ‘the Block McCarthy’ Ken Tuckett, Mark Gray, Professors Dick Lewis and Phil Fennell of the Cardiff University Law School. Bernard deMaid was our first Chairman. To name, as they say, but a few.
The Accies have supplied two Presidents of the Cardiff and District Law Society including Roy “Mogs” Morgan, and another bloke [ who modesty and embarrassment precludes me from mentioning], with another on the way.
Over ten of the recent tourists were past and present South Wales Solicitors. We hold a dinner in May to celebrate survival, and whilst no tickets are available for the function at Cardiff Castle, a commemorative book is being produced, which will be better value than the Gazette, and if you, dear reader, would like to advertise your business in it, it is a very reasonable price for a good size advert. Let me Know.
On the Confederation front, we still await the influx of membership [it will remain free for next year] and we hope to start active recruiting at student and in-house level in the next few months. Mike Walters is already working on our best value series of Autumn CPD courses in addition to the Employment Seminar in May. Frances Williams and Richard Fisher are organising a Summer Barbeque.
I hope you will excuse a note of real sadness at this point. We in South Wales have lost a truly lovely person on the sad passing of Sally Enever. Sally was one of the most vivacious people that I ever met. I well remember the first time we met - in the Cardiff University Law Library. Both of us were engaged in studying for what in those days were known as “Part 11’s”[now LPC Finals]. In typical Sally style, she noticed that I was reading one of those fearsome little blue College of Law booklets on Equity and Trusts [Greenacre, Blackacre etcetera], and not sotto voce, said “So you are engaged in the same horror as me then!”
We became good friends [who could forget her legendary parties, like the “Out of Africa” one at her and her then husband’s [the equally legendary Barrister Bob Roberts] home. A glass of Champagne was never far from any who were lucky enough to be in her company after a hard day at the office. She was a truly Champagne person-bubbly, dry and always welcome.
She was a skilful Family Lawyer, a constant delight to be with socially, and she combined her great beauty, with an air of innocence, gentle humour and charm. She will be sadly missed by all her friends, and my heartfelt condolences go out to her three lovely sons.
As Sally would say “Life goes on“. The daffs are coming out in the garden, the Central Heating is not on constant, and the Army Surplus green thermals are back in the draw after fumigation.
I leave you with this anecdote. Pharaoh Ramisses the Second sent his Chief Philosopher into the wilderness, with the task of returning only when he had found a saying that was apposite to all situations.
Two years later, wretched with hunger, bedraggled, unshaven and emaciated he returned.
“Well” said Ramisses, “Did you succeed?”
“I did Lord. The saying you seek is This Too Shall Pass!”
Hope springs eternal, even in legal aid lawyer’s souls!
Until the next time.
Chairman, Confederation of South Wales Law Societies
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