UK

Lawyers stage second walkout over legal aid cuts

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Media captionCelebrities including actress Maxine Peake joined the protest in Westminster

Thousands of lawyers opposed to legal aid cuts in England and Wales have staged their second walkout this year.

The Criminal Bar Association (CBA) called the cuts "crippling" ahead of the action, which was set to affect many trials on Friday.

The government is pressing ahead with fee cuts for barristers and solicitors in an effort to save £220m from the £2bn annual cost of legal aid.

It has said reform of the "expensive" system is vital in austere times.

Thousands of criminal case lawyers staged a first walkout in January, causing widespread disruption.

Trials affected

On Friday, barristers did not attend proceedings at major crown courts in cities including London, Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool Hundreds of lawyers marched to Westminster in protest.

They were addressed by speakers including Janis Sharp, whose son Gary McKinnon narrowly avoided extradition to the US, Blur drummer turned solicitor Dave Rowntree, and Paddy Hill, one of the Birmingham Six.

Ms Sharp said: "I'm down here because my son Gary McKinnon was fighting extradition for 10 years and without legal aid he wouldn't be here and without legal aid he would be dead."

Banners included ones reading "Access to Justice RIP" and "Save Legal Aid".

At the Old Bailey, only five out of 18 criminal courts were sitting. High-profile trials included that of the man accused of killing PC Keith Blakelock, a charge he denies.

BBC legal correspondent Clive Coleman said Friday's protest was an escalation of January's action.

Barristers and solicitors are not calling it a strike, but that is how it will be seen, our correspondent added.

Of the roughly £2bn legal aid bill to taxpayers 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%.

'Third-rate advice'

The CBA and the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association (LCCSA) say the fee cuts are financially unnecessary and will cause significant damage to the criminal justice system by driving skilled and experienced lawyers away from publicly-funded criminal work.

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Media captionSolicitor Nicola Hill: "Justice will become a luxury"

LCCSA president Nicola Hill said the cuts would mean hundreds of law firms would "rapidly go to the wall", and others would sack experienced solicitors and replace them with "unqualified and cheap" ones.

She added: "It's the ordinary people, those we don't hear about, who don't make the headlines, who will have to accept third-rate advice."

The CBA's Nigel Lithman QC said: "If these cuts are not addressed, then the British justice system, which is held in such high esteem around the world, will cease to exist as we know it and the British public can no longer expect true justice to be delivered."

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "The effect will be crippling. It means people of social diversity will not be able to come to the Bar, will not be able to go into criminal law."

He added that the effect of payment cuts to solicitors would mean "one third of them will go out of business and people coming from university will simply choose not to go into the criminal justice system because they won't be able to afford to".

'Unprecedented challenge'

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said that at about £2bn, England and Wales had "one of the most expensive" legal aid systems in the world.

"As everybody knows, this government is dealing with an unprecedented financial challenge and the MoJ has no choice but to significantly reduce the amount of money it spends every year," she added.

"We have spoken at length over the past year with solicitors and barristers about the reforms and our final plans reflect many of the changes they asked for.

"It does mean fee reductions, but it also includes a series of measures to ease their effect on lawyers."

She said the plans represented an average 2% reduction for barristers at the lower end of the fee income scale and an average of 6% "more generally".

The CBA said many junior barristers faced rates as low as £20 a day, once the hours of preparation, time in court and chambers' fees were factored in, as well as receiving no holiday pay, no pension provision and no sickness or maternity benefits.

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