Tomorrow, members of the Criminal Bar Association will stage another nationwide strike in protest at the Justice Secretary’s legal aid cuts, which will see lawyers’ fees cut by a further 30% (on top of a 40% overall cut since 1997).
The potential damage of spending cuts to the legal system has been well-rehearsed in the broadsheets: a surge of people without representation, reduced ability to access the legal system for the most vulnerable, a ‘brain drain’ away from areas like criminal law. The threat is very real. Earlier this week Lord Thomas, the lord chief justice, suggested that reducing the number of criminal cases tried by the Crown Court (in other words, by a jury) and replacing the adversarial family court system with an inquisitorial (judge-led) one may be the only way to cope with a ‘fundamental retrenchment’ of the legal system. As the CBA has said, these cuts will change 800 years of legal history.
Why does no one seem to care?
Barristers have done themselves no favours. During their last strike in January, participants were branded ‘the most elite picket line in the history of British industrial relations’ as pictures of bewigged, WASPish barristers – some clutching £1,000 handbags – did the rounds on the internet.
To be successful, barristers must understand that this is a battle of public perception – for hearts and minds – as much as it is a battle against funding cuts. Effective PR will be central to winning any concessions at all. A (far from scientific) straw poll of barristers-to-be on the Bar Professional Training Course in London does not inspire confidence: responses ranged from ‘PRs are lazy parasites, aren’t they?’ to ‘barristers are advocates – why would we need PR help?’
M’lud, we submit that a proper PR strategy is exactly what is needed.
With that in mind, a few suggestions which might be considered are:
1. Off with the wig and gown. The garb inspires respect in the courtroom, but isolates from the man in the street. Wearing wigs and gowns does not establish barristers as ‘people like you and me’; wearing expensive shoes, bags and suits even less so. Nobody identifies with a person in eighteenth-century dress. On a public picket, take it off.
2. Talking about criminal advocates’ poor pay won’t cut ice with the general public. The UK average salary is £26,000 per year; the MoJ asserts that the average wage of criminal barristers is £72,000 (though whether this is truly representative is debatable – stories of twentysomething criminal advocates struggling on £12,000 per year are not uncommon). The professional classes are all aware of the comparative pittance earned by criminal barristers (but we all know that’s why mixed practices are the goal to aim for, however difficult to achieve). We know this is a problem – but the message doesn’t resonate with the wider public, and its too late to help you build support.
3. Focus on reductions in public services and access to justice instead. Find case studies from the lay community and cost out what an acceptable level of public funding will cost – and pump that out to media. You need to make cuts to justice resonate on the same level as cuts to the NHS.
4. Simplify the message. As schoolkids, future barristers were the cleverest kids in the class, and the most eloquent (read: argumentative). However, effective public campaigns demand repetition, simplicity and an understanding about how the media works. Nigel Lithman QC did not compare legal cuts to Thereisenstadt but you would be forgiven for thinking he did, given the outraged (and counter-productive) media reaction. A message that is too complex, like Mr Lithman’s, is easily mangled. Public campaigning is very different to legal advocacy – keep it clear, simple, and encourage others to action or support.
Kate Moffat is a Senior Account Director at professional services and legal communications consultancy, Spada PR, and a crisis and campaigns specialist