Lawyers protesting outside courts over legal aid cuts

Barristers outside Southwark Crown Court Southwark Crown Court in south London was the focus of the protests

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Thousands of criminal case lawyers are not attending courts in a number of cities in England and Wales, in protest at planned cuts of £220m to legal aid.

The Criminal Bar Association said the unprecedented action came with anger at "boiling point".

Lawyers argue the cuts could see their fees fall by up to 30% and reduce the representation available to defendants.

The Ministry of Justice said efficiencies were necessary to ensure legal aid remained "sustainable".

Lawyers outside the Old Bailey in central London Lawyers walked out from what is arguably England's most famous court - the Old Bailey
Protest at Westminster Magistrates' Court Magistrates' courts were also affected by the action
Solicitors and barristers outside Birmingham Crown Court Solicitors and barristers were absent from proceedings at Birmingham Crown Court

Nigel Lithman QC says the UK's criminal justice system is "under attack"

Justice minister Shailesh Vara said: "We are living in difficult economic times and lawyers are not immune from the economic climate."

'Minimum wage'

Legal aid costs taxpayers about £2bn every year - half goes on criminal defence and the rest on civil cases. Government proposals, being phased in from April, to cut that by £220m include cutting fees in complex, high-cost cases by 30%, and in other crown court work by up to 18%.

Analysis

So strongly ingrained is the idea of "fat cat" lawyers in people's minds, that it's never going to be easy for lawyers complaining about pay rates to gain the sympathy of the public.

But this dispute is about more than just pay. When the state brings all of its powers to bear in prosecuting someone for a crime, it is critical that the defendant whose liberty, reputation and future is at stake, has access to good quality legal advice and representation.

Lawyers claim the latest proposed cuts represent the state reducing defence funding for those whom it prosecutes. Barristers and solicitors believe that the proposed rates are so low that talented lawyers will leave criminal defence work. They fear aspiring lawyers, saddled with student loans, will choose to practice in other areas.

The government remains confident that the proposed new rates will attract good quality lawyers.

The Treasury Counsel, an elite group of barristers appointed by the attorney general to prosecute the most serious crimes, the Bar Council, which represents barristers in England and Wales, and the Law Society, which represents solicitors in England and Wales, have all criticised the plans.

The Criminal Bar Association said there was a mass "non-attendance" at courts on Monday in cities including London, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Birmingham, Newcastle, Winchester, Bristol and Cardiff. The main focus of the protest is at Southwark Crown Court, in London.

Lawyers said they were "not prepared to work at hourly rates lower than the national minimum wage".

The association said legal aid cuts had caused a recent complex fraud trial to be put in jeopardy because 17 sets of chambers had declined to accept the case for four of the eight defendants.

Association chairman Nigel Lithman QC said: "A line has to be drawn in the sand before it's too late. The cuts pose the most serious threat to the British legal system in more than 400 years.

"The government says it is tough on crime, but is stripping the criminal justice system of anyone able to adequately prosecute serious criminals or defend those falsely accused.

"We merely seek a pay freeze. What could be more reasonable than that? I have offered to engage with the lord chancellor as to how to make savings across the system."

The Criminal Bar Association said the action would not jeopardise trials, but warned that if the pay dispute was not resolved, trials due to start after April, including those for murder and rape, could be put at risk.

'Sustainable'

At the Old Bailey, a jury was sent out to consider its verdict in a terrorism trial in front of an empty court, because of the protest. Among those missing from their usual places in the empty well of the court were the two prosecution barristers as well as the defence barristers and solicitors for the two defendants.

Judge Gerald Gordon told the jury in court 16 of the Old Bailey: "You can see the rather lonely position I am in."

Shailesh Vara MP: "Lawyers are not immune from the economic climate"

A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: "At around £2bn a year we have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world, and it would remain very generous even after reform.

"Latest figures show more than 1,200 barristers judged to be working full time on taxpayer-funded criminal work received £100,000 each in fee income last year, with six barristers receiving more than £500,000 each.

"We entirely agree lawyers should be paid fairly for their work, and believe our proposals do just that.

"We also agree legal aid is a vital part of our justice system; that's why we have to find efficiencies to ensure it remains sustainable and available to those most in need of a lawyer."

Lawyers dispute the figures on fee income.

The shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said the "unprecedented action" showed relations between the legal profession and David Cameron's government "have collapsed as a result of policies which could restrict access to our courts to only those who can afford it".

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