Barristers stage Legal Aid protest

Thousands of barristers chose not to attend proceedings at courts across the country, including Northampton Crown Court, this morning.

The nationwide protest was the first in the history of the criminal bar.

Barristers and solicitors outside Southwark Crown Court, London, during a nationwide strike against Government plans to cut fees as part of a bid to slash �220m from the  legal aid budget by 2018/19

Barristers and solicitors outside Southwark Crown Court, London, during a nationwide strike against Government plans to cut fees as part of a bid to slash �220m from the legal aid budget by 2018/19

The Government plans to cut fees as part of a bid to slash £220m from the legal aid budget by 2018/19 – reducing them by as much as 30 per cent in the longest and most complex cases.

Criminal Bar Association chairman Nigel Lithman said the “strike” had the backing of almost every chambers and accused Justice Secretary Chris Grayling of “manipulating” official figures to falsely portray lawyers doing criminal aid work as high-earning “fat cats”.

The Ministry of Justice said it was vital to scale back the most expensive legal aid scheme in the world and insisted it will remain “very generous” even after the changes.

The department highlighted figures showing that 1,200 barristers judged to be working full-time on taxpayer-funded criminal work received £100,000 each in fee income last year.

Six barristers picked up more than £500,000 each, it said.

But Mr Lithman, whose own case was moved to the afternoon, said the same official statistics showed that – after allowing for VAT and other expenses – the average barrister involved in the work earned around £36,000.

The Bar Council calculated that it was lower still – about the £27,000 national average, he said, meaning the cuts would push people away from the vital work.

The Bar Standards Board has warned that any barristers who stay away from court will almost certainly be in breach of their professional code of conduct with “very serious consequences”.

It urged the CBA to call off the action which it said could harm the interests of clients, others involved in a case and public confidence in the administration of justice.

The reforms also include limits on prisoners’ access to legal aid, a household disposable income threshold for criminal legal aid and reductions in the cost of fees for representation.

About 70 barristers gathered outside Birmingham Crown Court to back the walk-out and hear Mark Wall QC read out a statement condemning the Government’s proposals.

And about 150 protesters gathered outside the entrance to London’s Southwark Crown Court where some pre-trial hearings were being held without all barristers present.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “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.

“Agencies involved in the criminal justice system will take steps to minimise any upset court disruption could cause for victims and witnesses involved in trials.”