UWE, in partnership with Business West, runs an annual lecture series that brings top business leaders to Bristol. We caught up with Andrew Langdon QC, Barrister and Former Chair of the Bar Council, before he gave his address:
1. What does the Chair of the Bar Council do?
I remember my predecessor saying it’s two things:
You are Chair of the Bar Council, but you’re also Chair of the Bar, so, in a sense, during our term, we lead the profession, represent the profession and head the profession.
The Bar Council itself is quite a big organisation - we employ over 100 people, we work with policy issues, we work quite closely with our regulator, we work in promoting the Bar at home and abroad, and we work with government.
In terms of other relationships (with professional bodies and the judiciary), all the work tends to be focussed through our organisation. So although there are many other barrister organisations, representatives from each of those will form part of the body that runs the Bar Council.
2. What do you think of the reduction of public spending on criminal law?
It’s not just in criminal law. Since 2013 great swathes of public funding for the most vulnerable people are no longer available, and this has serious repercussions for the rule of law and access to justice.
That has repercussions for society. People feel more remote, more dislocated, less inclined to think they can achieve a remedy at law. I think, frankly, it’s a pretty dreadful situation and there’s not enough attention paid to it.
There are very few, if any other, areas of public service that have been cut to the same extent that legal aid has been cut, and it’s not just legal aid, it’s funding in the criminal justice system generally.
It’s a very hot topic at the moment in relation to disclosure. Justice and the delivery of it in a fair way, consistent with what’s going on in modern life, is not cheap and in a time of austerity we’re trying to do it more cheaply than we can get away with.
We need wholesale reinvestment.
3. Do you think you’re having any success in winning that argument?
Just when you think no one is listening, the world starts to pay attention, as it is doing in relation to disclosure, which is but one aspect of a much larger problem.
I’m an optimist in the end. I think the tide will turn.
In the end, public disquiet will manifest in a way that politicians will need to realise that they need to realign their priorities and the Treasury will have to stump up more money.
Less than 1 percent of the national spend is on justice. When you think how important a proper, respected system of justice is – it’s a cornerstone of any civilised society.
It’s even more than that for the UK though - it’s one of the few things we have an international reputation for doing very, very well. It’s the gold standard. A big export.
So if you only want to look at it financially, it’s terribly short-sighted to be tarnishing our reputation.
There are other knock on consequences for government expenditure too. Every pound spent on legal aid, researchers have demonstrated, costs about £9 down the track, because if you can stop someone from being evicted, they’re not going to be homeless, they’re not going to be a burden on the NHS and so on.
So it’s just daft to starve the justice system of access to justice for vulnerable people.
One day someone will appreciate that we’ve got ourselves into a dangerous situation and will go and traverse, but we’re not there yet.
4. Is the bar, as an institution, so entrenched that it’s impossible to make it reflective of diversity in society?
No it’s not impossible, partly because of the distance we have come in the last 20-30 years.
We still have a very long way to go, but both in terms of BAME and women, the figures are a lot more positive than they used to be.
One of the problems, and your students here will feel this most acutely, is the cost of qualification.
The Bar Council takes the view that this has become scandalously high.
This has an impact on social mobility and we are backing proposals to try to introduce ways of obtaining that qualification more cheaply, but that’s only part of the problem.
There are various other initiatives afoot, which are about mentoring, particularly in relation to women at the Bar, which are beginning to have some traction, so we’re beginning to get more QCs who are women.
The rate of appointments to the judiciary who are women at the more junior level is much higher than it used to be.
So, yes, we’re heading in the right direction, but as with many other professions we’re someway off where we need to be.
5. What would you say to students who want to be criminal barristers in terms of following their passion?
Well first of all I hope that’s why they’ve chosen it.
One of the things that’s inspiring about being a leader at the Bar, is that you meet a lot of young barristers – including some students who are aspiring to be one – and you can tell very quickly whether someone is going to stick at it and make it, because they have that passion for it.
If they are coming into the criminal Bar only to make money they are going to be disappointed, but of course most of them aren’t.
I actually think that if they have the belief and the self-confidence then you can make a living. We haven’t got to the stage where it’s impossible to do that. You have to cut your cloth accordingly, but there were times in the past when the Bar was much smaller than it is now.
The first few years of practice used to be extraordinarily hard. I’m more worried about the social mobility side of things and who it puts off, but I think if someone makes a determined effort to make a career at the Bar, that’s still possible.
6. What do you think about the aftercare available for people involved in difficult court cases?
I think we are behind the curve on what’s required. Not just for jurors but frankly for everyone, whether that’s investigators, court staff, lawyers or barristers.
In a sense our first duty ought to be to jurors who are carrying out a central function as citizens. I think it would be extremely difficult to say anything other than we need to put much more effort, time and resources into making sure that the sort of help that should be available is available.
Having said all that, what we must be careful that we do is that we’re not unduly willing to put the responsibility of trying our peers to be shirked . That’s a democratic thing, we have to face up to the fact that we have these ghastly trials – juries are an essential part of what we do- so we have to be robust about it. But there’s no reason why we can’t use all the expertise we now have to ensure that people have the help that they need if they’ve been traumatised by the experience.
7. How concerned are you about the loss of European legislation to our statute?
Wherever you stand on the Brexit issue, the thing that struck me when I went out to Brussels last year, is how unhappy the European lawyers and judges are at the loss of the academics and practitioners from England and Wales, who they regard as the very best, who have led the field and the development of European law.
They have a sense that they are losing an incredibly valuable thing. That strikes me as a poignant indication that it’s regrettable.
Most of us hope and expect that whichever form of Brexit we end up with we are still going to be consciously or otherwise influenced by legal developments around the world including Europe.
This series of free public lectures brings top level business leaders to Bristol. You can discuss these events on Twitter using the hashtag #BristolLectures and view further content from Andrew Langdon's lecture here. For more information please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.