Maura McGowan QC, Chairman of the Bar...

Maura, firstly can you tell our readers a bit about your own background and your work at the Bar Council?
I decided to become a barrister when I was still at school, following a debating competition, and have never looked back. I studied law at Manchester University and was called to the Bar in 1980. I am a criminal practitioner, and since I took silk in 2001 my work almost exclusively deals with cases of murder, drugs, violent and sexual assault and child abuse.

I have been the Chairman of the Bar since January 2013, and my term will end in December. My year to date has been heavily influenced by the dramatic proposed changes to the legal aid budget, which are still currently under consultation, but I have also been carrying out the ongoing international work which publicises the Bar aboard and focussing on the Bar Council’s continuing work to improve social mobility and diversity within the profession. 

The Bar Council has been vocal around the issue of cuts to legal aid, so can you summarise its general position?
We have been vocal about the Ministry of Justice’s consultation on legal aid because we have a legal system which works in the public interest and is respected all over the world, and the proposals will damage it beyond repair and hit the diversity of the legal profession hard.

If the Government’s proposals go through, vast contracts will be issued to a small number of whichever organisations can offer block legal services at the lowest price. It is more than likely that as a result, new organisations will enter into the market that have no track record in law; only in business.

We have fears that quality will disappear and the only driver will be price. Instead of having equal access to justice we will have a two-tier system for those who can afford quality representation and those who can’t. The Lord Chancellor did recently announce that defendants in criminal legal aid cases will be able to choose their lawyer, however the pool from which to choose will be greatly diminished, and until we see the details of how it will work in practice we are unclear as to whether it will have the positive proposed effect on quality.

Also, the proposals will hit female and Black, Minority and Ethnic (BME) practitioners the hardest, and as a result lead to a less diverse legal profession. This is clearly against the public interest.

Criminal defence makes up more than half of legal aid expenditure, so in such austere times do you think maintaining that should be a priority? 
Yes I do. It is a priority. We accept that in this age of austerity we are not exempt from cuts and that belts in all Government departments have to be tightened. What we do not agree with is the proposed way the cuts will be made to the legal aid budget, and we have laid out our concerns and some workable alternatives in our consultation response. We want to work with the Ministry of Justice to look at making cuts in a way which won’t damage the system, and we have offered our help. Justice is the cornerstone of a democratic country.

The government recently announced that plans to remove the right of legal aid defendants in criminal cases in England and Wales to choose their solicitor have been scrapped. What’s your view on that?
We were very glad to see that the Lord Chancellor has recognised the importance of choice of lawyer, and that the State which is accusing you of a crime is not the same body choosing the lawyer who represents you. However, it remains unclear how this will happen in practice if the other proposals are put in place. We await the details.

One of the key suggestions is that defendants with a disposable income of more than £37,500 should not get automatic access to legal aid. Do you think that’s fair?
If someone can afford to pay their legal fees, it is fair that they should do so in appropriate cases. In criminal cases, the Bar Council campaigned hard to ensure that wealthy defendants’ assets were unfrozen to meet legal costs, but we need to strike a sensible balance.

The Government also wants to see fewer - but bigger - organisations providing legal aid as part of a more streamlined system. It sounds good in theory but what do you think the long term implications will be?
We do not believe it would be a positive move for the justice system. The Government’s proposals lay out a scheme whereby legal contracts will be put up for Dutch auction on a large scale, so that organisations can buy block legal services at the lowest price. This reduces legal services down to a business model, which is not driven by the public interest.

There is legitimate concern that organisations which do not currently work in the legal services industry will enter into the market. Such organisations would not have a track record in law and will be focusing primarily on turning a profit. This is dangerous when applied to justice. 

The Justice Secretary has said he will consider arguments for a gradual consolidation of legal aid providers in order to preserve quality of representation and prevent "advice deserts" in certain areas. Is that something you welcome?
We have not seen the details of how this would work in practice, so currently cannot comment. However, any move to ensure quality is positive. That said, until we can see a workable model we believe it is incompatible alongside plans to bring in price competitive tendering.

Away from legal aid, what do you think are the main challenges and issues facing the legal sector? 
As the Chairman of the Bar, I speak only on behalf of barristers, who are always seeking to offer their high quality, cost-effective services in a relevant way. In an increasingly global working environment the Bar Council must continue to work hard to promote the Bar’s interests abroad as well as at home. We undertake a comprehensive programme of international work to sell the Bar’s services and to promote the English and Welsh legal system to the rest of the world. It is a key goal of the Bar Council’s to grow our international network in order to widen the pool of potential instructions, and although we stride from strength to strength in this area, there is always more we can do.

Also, through our Member Services Department we offer a wide range of training programmes for barristers, and run the accredited Public Access course, which means that barristers are able to take direct instructions from the public for certain types of cases. We promote the course and its benefits to our members and advertise it to the public as an efficient and cost-effective means of dealing with their legal problems, but there are some significant challenges involved in raising public awareness that one can now go directly to a barrister, which we are working hard on.

BARCO is another growth area for us. It is a new escrow account service which allows the Bar to manage its financial relationship with clients without handling client money, which is prohibited in the Code of Conduct. It has also meant that the Bar can work more easily with those who need their services without a solicitor. As a new scheme for the Bar, it represents a learning curve which the Bar Council is helping to educate barristers on. It has had great initial feedback, and our challenges now lie with rolling it out more expansively across the profession, where appropriate.

How do you think it the Bar will change and evolve over the next 10 years?
The Bar is constantly evolving to keep up with the changing markets it operates within. From the work that has been done to digitalise processes, to the many new ways of working, like Direct Access, the Bar has shown remarkable skill at adapting to change. The Bar is a modern profession which changes like any other profession in order properly to represent those who require its services; don’t let the wigs and gowns fool you.

Over the next ten years I hope that Public Access will become more and more widely used, and that BARCO will become a key part of the Bar’s business model. Both are reactions to changes in the market, and provide new ways of working which look to offer legal services in the most convenient and cost-effective manner.

The commercial Bar should not be forgotten, as it is a very successful branch of the legal sector which generates significant financial revenue and contributes to national GDP. I see it expanding year on year, demonstrating the value of the Bar in the UK’s economic growth.

What role do you think the Bar Council will play?
The Bar Council will continue to support and represent the profession in any capacity it can.

On the publicly-funded side we will continue to maintain a dialogue with Government in shaping and implementing policy, and will lobby against change which is damaging to the profession and the population it serves.

On the privately-funded side we will continue to promote the services the Bar offers and help aid its growth abroad by constantly looking at new ways to expand the base for instructions. 

Alongside this we will continue to promote London as a world-class centre of excellence in the provision of legal services.