The Supreme Court judge, famous for having “a brain the size of a planet” has told the bar that it needs to change the way it looks at legal in desperate times of squeezed public sector expenditure.
Speaking at the Bar Conference on Saturday, Lord Sumption labelled spending on criminal legal aid as “fundamental” as he backed the government’s decision to spend an additional £23 million on barristers’ trial fees in serious criminal cases (which was announced just a couple of days ago).
Sumption then proceeded to label civil legal aid as “discretionary”, and that it had to justifiably compete with other calls on public funds, in areas including health and social security.
He said: “I know this is not a popular message — but the bar’s response to these challenges has not always been wise.”
He then gave his view on exactly how barristers have been getting it wrong on legal aid.
The 69-year-old said that the bar had often overstated its case in arguing against public funding cuts, failing to recognise that “we can’t return to open handed approach of 1970s”. Earlier on in his talk, he charted the sharp increase in legal aid in the 1970s, as it rose from supplying 10% of the bar’s earnings to 30% in just a decade. This was a “golden age” that is unlikely to repeat itself any time soon, he said, predicting a shrinkage in barrister numbers over the years ahead — as the effect of the government’s post-financial crisis slashing of the legal aid budget by £350 million works through the system.
Sumption, who will retire next month, went on to slam the bar’s recent campaigning methods, which he said would only work if the profession enjoyed instinctive support from the public.
“Barristers will never enjoy the kind of support nurses or teachers enjoy, that means they can’t use the same campaigning methods. Public demonstrations with banner in hand and wig on head look absolutely ridiculous and are completely counter productive,” he said.
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