Barristers must rethink their "ridiculous" protests against legal aid cuts, Supreme Court justice Lord Sumption has said, in a speech in which he also conceded that solicitors were now almost as clever as barristers.
Speaking to the annual Bar and Young Bar Conference in London last week, Sumption told his audience that legal aid has historically been too widely available in the past. "I know that this is not going to be a popular message in this place", he said, "but the bar’s response to these challenges has not always been wise".
No stranger to courting controversy within the profession, he said the public believes that barristers "are rich toffs who help their clients to avoid their just deserts". As a result, "Public demonstrations with banner in hand and wig on head look ridiculous and are completely counter-productive". Barristers should fight unacceptable cuts by refusing to take on instructions for inadequate fees, said Sumption, and by working on sympathetic government ministers.
The 69-year-old, who will retire from the Supreme Court next year (and perhaps return to the bar to make a quick fortune), risked controversy again by venturing in his speech that “most” solicitors "are excellent lawyers". Until the 1970s, he said, solicitors "were quite extraordinarily deferential to barristers". Few solicitors were sharp legal analysts or learned in case-law, he said, partly because back then "litigation was no business for a gentleman".
Sumption described an unnamed City firm where the litigation department consisted of a single clerk whose job "was to arrange to get the chairman of the client’s chauffeur off speeding charges, and to rid the senior partner of his wife at minimum cost to his bottom line".
It's not all changed for the better. Most of the suits now worn by barristers are "of two pieces not three, and usually bought off the shelf". Yuck. And sharper solicitors has meant barristers have had to improve their blagging skills. "When post-it stickers came in in the 1980s, a distinguished member of my chambers used to instruct his juniors to plant them at strategic point through the bundles in order to suggest careful perusal", mused Sumption. "That would have been quite unnecessary a decade earlier".