Michael Turner QC: Solicitors and barristers ‘lumbered with bodies  not representing their interests’

A leading criminal silk has called for the Law Society and Bar Council to be scrapped to make way for a ‘unified’ trade union that can represent the legal profession in opposition to government cuts. ‘The Law Society and the Bar Council should go and we should have a unified negotiation body,’ the former chair of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA), Michael Turner QC, told Solicitors Journal.

Turner – who, as CBA chair, represented criminal barristers during the introduction of the criminal legal aid reforms – was widely regarded as having united solicitors and barristers against the government’s controversial plans, despite attempts by the then Lord Chancellor to divide and conquer his opponents.

However, a string of back-stabbings between the professions, which culminated in the ‘hypocritical’ deal struck between the CBA’s Nigel Lithman QC and then justice secretary Chris Grayling, ultimately split the united front and left solicitors ‘up s**t creek without a paddle’, according to one high-profile law firm partner at the time.

‘If there had been a joint negotiation body, that would never have happened because there would have been a fair settlement, for both solicitors and the Bar,’ explained Turner. ‘The Bar thinks it can work without solicitors; it can’t. It’s tried introducing direct access; it doesn’t work, it’s a disaster. We need solicitors and they need us.’

The ‘Devil’s advocate’ also took aim at large law firms that have attempted to bypass the Bar by launching in-house advocacy teams. ‘It’s not an economic model for solicitors,’ argued Turner. ‘They can’t afford to pay senior advocates, so they can only do junior cases. But they don’t want their salaried advocates tied up in long cases because financially that doesn’t work. So, everyone is back to square one, agreeing that the Bar is cheaper.’

For Turner, legal chiefs must unite if there is to be any future for criminal practitioners: ‘What you need are the leaders. I was very keen to do it and eventually, despite some initial reluctance, the Bar came with me. Then you had the Criminal Law Solicitors Association and the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association; we all wanted the same thing.

‘If you get those combinations of people it will work. But, if you get one leader who isn’t prepared to work towards that end, well… The Bar needs to wake up and support the solicitors’ fight because if solicitors go we are going to be in trouble. Solicitors will survive, but in order to survive they will screw the Bar.’

According to the Garden Court silk, who spoke out in favour of last summer’s strike action, criminal lawyers have been ‘desperate’ for a trade union-style body to represent their needs because it was a ‘sensible way to proceed’.

‘The first person I saw as CBA chair was Bob Crow, leader of the RMT Union,’ said  the barrister. ‘He taught me how to run a trade union and that’s what I viewed myself as, a trade union leader. That is what the leaders of our profession should be. That is what they are there for.’

Turner’s call for unionisation comes days after former justice minister Lord McNally urged legal aid lawyers to stop ‘looking like 1970s trade unionists’. However, the attempted insult is dismissed by Turner, who, asked for his response to the Liberal Democrat peer’s comments, said: ‘Lord McNally would say that. What else do you expect us to be?

‘The GMB offered to set up a legal branch that legal services could join and it would negotiate on our behalf,’ he admits. ‘But, because of how I ran the CBA, people felt it was unnecessary. Now we are back to the bad old days. We tried to get Mark George QC in as chair – he had very similar ideas to me – but he lost by a few votes to Francis Fitzgibbon QC.’

In what he believes is a time of growing discontent among juniors with the criminal Bar’s leadership, Turner expects the idea of a trade union for legal services to be revived, especially in light of what he suggests is an understandable lack of faith lawyers hold for their respective representative bodies.

‘Solicitors, in general, hate the Law Society, because it’s a great behemoth that takes an awful lot of money from solicitors and does nothing with it. The Bar Council is exactly the same. We are both lumbered with bodies not interested in representing our interests,’ he said.

‘If you are acting in a representative capacity, you are meant to represent the interests of your members and when your members are baying for a particular deal, well that is what you should strive for. You can’t turn around and get the deal you think we should be having, and which destroys the professions.’

The silk added: ‘When we were having the fights with government, was there any pressure from the Bar Council? No. We were fighting for our lives and the public needed to understand that. It was only when the public realised junior barristers couldn’t pay their own train fares that we started getting sympathy.’

Although Turner sees a trade union as the only way of putting pressure on the Ministry of Justice to halt cuts to the justice system, he also argued that the profession must do more to support other public sector workers under attack by the government.

‘Solicitors and barristers are very poor at supporting the fights of other public service unions. Other public services are not going to support the legal profession unless you support them,’ he said. ‘We should be communing with other unions. We are public sector workers paid by government. Why aren’t we out there supporting the junior doctors? We should be offering legal services to the unions for nothing.’

The Law Society and the Bar Council both declined to comment.

This article first appeared in Solicitors Journal and is reproduced with kind permission.