The cloth cap barrister

In the 1960s there were about sixty barristers practising in Northern Ireland. It was the preserve of the rich and connected. I was at Queen’s law faculty in the late 1960s when one of these people came and told us not to go to the bar because it was “overcrowded”. I did other things for ten years, then studied at the Institute for Professional Legal Studies. At this point there were about 180 barristers practising. A man called Kennedy came and told us not to go to the Bar because it was “overcrowded”. A few years later his daughter came to the Bar. There are now about 700 barristers in practice , trying to get a piece  of a pie which has shrunk by probably a third, since the 1980s. Legal aid for civil proceedings is rare and the fees paid for serious criminal cases have seriously diminished. The Chief Justice suggested that a solution to the absence of legal aid could  be that young unemployed barristers might do cases for free.

Readers may remember a recent campaign by the profession, complaining about fee cuts and suggesting that it was the end of justice as we know it. Humpty Dumpty- like, the profession was led up the hill and back down again.

Now the Minister of Justice, when told of a muttering by the legal profession will think what Stalin said when told of the Pope’s criticism: “how many divisions  has the Pope?”

The implications for young barristers are dire. More importantly, the outcome for the public is  that they will not be properly represented by experienced counsel. Maybe not an issue until you are falsely accused of a crime.

Worse, we head back to the days of the 1960s when a friend was told by an old hand, who eventually became a Lord Justice of Appeal, “there seem to be a lot of cloth cap barristers arriving”.

Cloth cap no more.


Legal services in Northern Ireland are in crisis. There is no doubt about that. On the one side stand the forces of Minister Ford, Alliance,  and  his well paid officials. Already they are two times winners over the legal profession.

As in all causes , there are two sides. There are fat cats in my profession. Some knew exactly how to play the game and became very rich. But they did not steal the money. Ford’s officials paid them.

There are also what a famous English rugby player called “the old farts”, who run and are part of the system.

At the other end the majority of barristers do their best to represent their clients.

The menace for the citizen is that the State, the Assembly, wants no opposition. Paul Given would have flourished in Berlin.

The unholy alliance of DUP/Sinn Fein/IRA wants no opposition.

At present, the citizen relies on Jim Allister , Stephen Nolan and the legal profession.

Where do the LGBT community, the poor , the oppressed, those without hope, go for support?

In the old bar library, I sat at a table with five colleagues. Of the six, two were Protestants from North Belfast , four were Roman Catholics  from Belfast and elsewhere. All were the first in their family to go to university .

If minister Ford has his way nobody , client or your child, will have access to the legal system , unless you are very rich.

Is that what you want?