The dinner in the great hall was over, mercy had been said, we had said goodbye to the other diners with a small bow and were now sitting at a horseshoe-shaped table in a room reserved for benches. The man to my right, another layman among the lawyers at Lincoln’s Inn, fired a carafe of port wine at me, cut a pear in the middle, and told me about his life.
Born in India more than 80 years ago, he came to the UK when he was a teenager, went to university in Scotland, worked as a business journalist for a while and gave it up to start buying and selling companies himself. When he left India he had promised never to return because of the cruelty and injustice of the caste system and although he later made peace with the country when he took his family there for a three month tour, his heart belonged elsewhere.
“When I lived in Scotland, I realized I loved England. I still do. There is no other country that is so tolerant and kind,” he said.
It was a touching, even gripping feeling, not least because while we were talking, a Boeing 767 was preparing to take off at a military air base near Salisbury with the first asylum seekers on their way to Rwanda. The flight never left the base due to a last-minute injunction from the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
Earlier, while sitting under GW Watt’s giant fresco A Hemicycle of Law-givers – showing Moses, Pythagoras, Charlemagne and King Alfred the Great establishing the law – I sought an opinion from a prominent QC. I wanted to know if Boris Johnson’s bill to unilaterally scrap the Northern Ireland Protocol and his plan to remove asylum seekers to Rwanda was illegal.
“The first clearly. The second possibly,” he said.
That QC was not among those who had acted for the asylum seekers who were taken off the plane, but some of those who did, have been exposed to death threats. The Bar Council’s chairman Mark Fenhalls accused the government of bullying them and asked the prime minister to apologize for allegedly accusing them of “participating in criminal gangs”.
Lincoln’s Inn – one of four Inns of Court next to the Inner Temple, Middle Temple and Gray’s Inn – is part of the old English justice infrastructure that stretches south from Holborn, past the Courts of Justice on Strand and Old Bailey a couple of streets east of them and down to the river. The narrow streets are lined with legal outfitters selling sober suits as well as wigs and dresses, legal paper printers and legal printers, watchmakers, jewelers and wine bars.
Many of today’s lawyers work in specially built chambers from the end of the 17th century, and some of the pubs they drink in go back even further. The Seven Stars has been on Carey Street since 1602 and under the leadership of its landlady, Roxy Beaujolais, for the past 30 years it is still one of the best and busiest bars in London.
Carey Street was long known as Queer Street because the bankruptcy court was there and money (or lack thereof) is again the talk of the town today. Criminal lawyers are voting this week on what measures will take over the government’s refusal to increase the small fees paid for legal aid work.
As in Ireland, the fees for legal aid are often so low that it is impossible for lawyers to survive on them, and in London the fee for a hearing is sometimes lower than the cost of the train ticket to go to court. Unpaid fees increase misery, and criminal lawyers have lost patience with the government’s refusal to listen to independent recommendations to raise tariffs.
Since April, criminal lawyers have applied a “no return” policy and refused to accept cases returned by colleagues who have a diary crash. An alternative to this week’s ballot is to escalate that measure to include all new cases, even if they continue to work on cases they have already accepted.
Ian Burnett, Lord Chief Justice, told a House of Lords committee that the government’s refusal to raise legal aid fees, along with the coronavirus pandemic, is one of the main reasons for the delay in court cases.
“The legal profession, both lawyers and attorneys, decreased in number because there was not much work to do, and it also decreased due to the severe deterioration in compensation levels that came through legal aid,” he said.
A judge in the criminal court told me that at least 80 percent of the defendants who came before her were dependent on legal aid, but the fees were so low that most young lawyers went elsewhere.
“It destroys the criminal bar,” she said.
“If my daughter told me she wanted to be a criminal lawyer, I would tell her not to do it – she has no hope of earning a living.”
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