Q&A with Maura McGowan QC, Chairman of the Bar

Maura McGowan

We are honoured to post on our blog a question and answer session with Maura McGowan QC, the Chairman of the Bar. Ms McGowan was called to the Bar by Middle Temple in 1980, took silk in 2001, and was appointed as a Deputy High Court Judge in 2010. Practising from 2 Bedford Row in London, Ms McGowan has extensive experience in all areas of criminal law and also carries out public inquiry work. Having served as the Vice-Chairman of the Bar Council in 2012, she was then elected as Chairman for 2013.

The Q&A is on the theme of the legal aid cuts, something about which many aspiring barristers are concerned. Ms McGowan has been fighting continuously to uphold fairness and justice for the legal profession and those citizens requiring legal aid. Read on to find out more about this issue.

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1. What do you consider to be the most worrying aspect of the Government’s proposed cuts to legal aid?

MMQC: That the service offered to the public will be detrimentally affected. If good lawyers leave the profession, quality will fall. Areas that are taken out of scope will mean no access to justice for people without the funds to pay their own costs. In areas such as judicial review, it will deny the right to challenge decisions made by Government departments and public bodies.

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2. Why should aspiring barristers such as our members be concerned about the proposed cuts?

MMQC: For all the public interests mentioned above but also as individuals. The publicly funded parts of the profession will shrink as fees fall. Solicitors will almost certainly do more advocacy themselves so that the supply of work will also shrink. It will be extremely difficult for graduates with large debts to start practice knowing they will not receive enough to meet their expenses and to clear their debts.

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3. How do you think the proposed cuts will affect women and minorities in the legal profession?

MMQC: As women and BME practitioners have traditionally been attracted to the publicly funded areas of practice, they are likely to be disproportionately affected by the cuts. The risk is that the diversity of the profession will be adversely affected and in due course that will reduce the diversity of the judiciary.

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4. What do you think will be the effect of the rise of litigants in person?

MMQC: The ironic and unintended consequence of the rise in the number of unrepresented parties is that cases will take longer, court lists will become clogged up, the work loads on the judiciary will increase and alter, and cases will fail to settle by negotiation in the pre-trial process. There is much research to show that money spent in the early stages of litigation has a much greater value.

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5. Do you think that the cuts will mean that those in need of legal advice who do not qualify for legal aid, but still cannot afford it, are being denied access to justice?

MMQC: The average person will find that they can no longer obtain legal advice or representation, and that the Citizens Advice Bureau and other voluntary organisations have suffered cuts. This will mean that cases that should be litigated will not be brought or adequately defended. It will take away access to legal remedies for anyone with less than enough money to pay their own costs.

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6. Do you think that the office of Lord Chancellor should be given to a politician with a legal background? Had the current Lord Chancellor come from a legal background, do you think his proposed cuts would be as severe?

MMQC: Having a legal background would make the task of being Lord Chancellor easier. There is much that outsiders do not readily understand. That being said, in the current economic climate, another Lord Chancellor might have made the same cuts. The Shadow Lord Chancellor has recently said that the Labour administration wouldn’t repeal LASPO [Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012] if elected in 2015.

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7. In light of question 6, do you think the office of Lord Chancellor is necessary following the changes made by the Constitutional Reform Act 2005?

MMQC: Even though the Lord Chancellor no longer has the responsibility of representing the judiciary, there are still very good institutional reasons for the political head of the Ministry of Justice to have a special and distinct role in the Cabinet.

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8. As a future solicitor, will the proposed legal aid cuts have a similarly negative impact upon my profession as it has to the Bar? And, if so, how can solicitors and barristers work together to combat these changes?

(Guest question from Lily Tomkins, Treasurer of Warwick Law Society)

MMQC: Solicitors will be affected by these cuts in similar ways. The numbers of firms doing publicly funded work will shrink and those firms will be likely to employ fewer solicitors and possibly on less generous terms than before.

Solicitors and barristers have joined together to fight the implementation of these cuts. Given that they are likely to be imposed to some extent, we now have to find a better way of working together to deal with their effects in the future.

One scheme which may help junior practitioners is the breaking down of cases into constituent parts, so that litigants who can pay something will be able to instruct a lawyer to do one piece of advice or advocacy in a case.

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9. Is there anything wrong with the proposition of a privatised court system?

MMQC: There is nothing wrong with expecting courts to run more effectively but there is everything wrong with a privatised system which is the mechanism through which justice is implemented and the rule of law is supported. It is difficult to imagine how anyone could ever make a profit out of the system.

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10. Why do you think barristers have a reputation amongst some members of the public for being ‘fat cats’? What can be done to further educate the public about the Bar in order to eradicate such stereotypes?

MMQC: Many commercial lawyers – barristers and solicitors – earn substantial amounts, and it is difficult for some members of the public to distinguish between them and the publicly funded. There are also a few legally aided lawyers who earn substantial amounts in occasional years because of delays in payment.

There has been a lack of public and press sympathy for our cause but we have made great changes in public perception in recent times. As always, we could do more but there are always some newspapers and some Government ministers who will not resist the lazy stereo-typing of the ‘fat cat’ label.

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11. The cuts will undoubtedly reduce aspiring barristers’ interests in the criminal Bar; many have decided and will decide that the poor remuneration is simply not worth it. Is this a problem and how can it be solved, if at all?

MMQC: It is a real problem for the future of the profession if people of real ability are discouraged from entering the profession. I think it’s difficult to see an immediate solution; work and income are both falling and it may be that recruitment and even retention will fall accordingly.

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12. As aspiring barristers, we are repeatedly told to have a ‘plan B’ and be certain that the Bar is right for us; the proposed legal aid cuts have made this career choice even more difficult. In light of this, what is the most sensible thing that an aspiring barrister, who is truly focused on the Bar, can do at this time?

MMQC: Securing a pupillage and a tenancy in due course has always been difficult. Not all aspiring barristers have succeeded in reaching their goal. That position is worse now than in the past. There is also the difficulty that other organisations, such as the CPS and Government Legal Service, are cutting the numbers of people they recruit.

Is it very depressing to have to tell people who desperately want to succeed that they may not, but that is the realistic prospect for the foreseeable future. I’m afraid a plan B is a necessity.

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We are very grateful to Ms McGowan for taking the time to answer our questions so thoroughly. To find out more about her role and the Bar Council itself, visit www.barcouncil.org.uk.

Whilst our Q&A ended on a somewhat sombre note, I am reminded of what Ms McGowan told me when I first met her at the Bar Council’s ‘Legal Aid Question Time’ in June: the best get there in the end. Of course, sheer determination is not enough these days, but it will certainly help you. At the very least, ensure that you have an excellent academic record, a string of mini-pupillages under your belt, and plenty of advocacy experience (mooting, debating, mock trials, etc.). Most importantly, make sure that the Bar is right for you; you will most likely find this out by speaking to barristers (particularly on your mini-pupillages) and by attending events such as those hosted by Warwick Bar Society. Do not despair!

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Anthony Searle
Founder and President

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