15 Jul 2015

Barristers vote to back legal aid protest

The Criminal Bar Association in England and Wales votes to support solicitors who are on strike over Government cuts to legal aid.

Probation officers strike

The barristers’ organisation voted by a narrow majority to support the protest over the 8.75% cut to legal aid fees, which came into force earlier this month. It means more lawyers will refuse to take on any new legal aid cases – and won’t fill in for colleagues who are involved in cases with clashing diary dates.

Solicitors across the country have been refusing to take up legal aid cases since the start of July after the second year of cuts. Lawyers have held mass meetings in major cities, including Manchester, Leeds, Bradford and London.

The Criminal Bar Association said it had taken into account the strength of feeling manifested by its 4,000 members – and had listened “with an open mind” to a wide range of opinions. But feelings are running high across the legal profession – with the justice system struggling to cope with a lack of resources.

Jon Black, from the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association, described the cuts as “not only unneccessary, but dangerous”, and said there was overwhelming support for the action they’ve been taking for the last two weeks.

They say the cuts will force many law firms to close because they can’t afford to take cases on after years of frozen legal aid rates. That could in turn affect the Bar, as many firms could take on advocacy work in house, to save funds.

If the lawyers don’t stand up now, the government will decimate legal welfare completely
Michael Mansfield QC

The Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, said he was disappointed that the CBA had voted to sujpport the action – but said he accepted it had been motivated by a concern for justice. In a statement, he said the vote had been “closer than many might have anticipated” and he fully intended to work constructively with the organisation to address a number of “perfectly legitimate” concerns.

The CBA says spending on legal aid has fallen by a third since 2009/10 – insisting that no other section of government spending has suffered such stringent cuts. Speaking before the vote, Michael Mansfield QC delivered his own clarion call for action.

“If the lawyers don’t stand up now, the government will decimate legal welfare completely, and will ultimately lead to the collapse of an effective and fair criminal justice system”, he told The Justice Gap.

“The rank and file of the bar…have had enough.”

The Ministry of Justice has consistently claimed that the cuts are neccessary to deliver value for money to taxpayers, while putting the legal profession on a sustainable footing. They’ve promised an independent review of the new financial arrangements in July 2016.

But that hasn’t stopped anger boiling over in the legal profession. And the refusal to take on new cases could now bring the court system juddering to a halt.