6 Jan 2014

Barristers walk out over cuts to legal aid

Barristers in England and Wales stage a half-day walkout in protest at government cuts to legal aid, which could leave them paid as little as £20 for a day’s work.

Barristers walked out of courtrooms on Monday in their full court regalia in protest against government cuts that they say have brought their profession to the edge of collapse and are endangering justice.

The “strike”, called by the Criminal Bar Association (CBA), is the first in the bar’s history, which stretches back to the 13th century.

The CBA represents 4,000 lawyers and the protests are organised at 15 different courts across the country.

Cut in funding

The collapse in pay has left the profession on the verge of collapse, says the CBA, which also claims that hardly any new barristers will be able to qualify in the field.

Barristers could get as little as £20 a day for work that often involves travel, says the professional body.

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling moved to cut a further 30 per cent from the £2bn-a-year legal aid bill in April despite a 40 per cent reduction in funding since 1997, a decision that leading QC and CBA Chairman Nigel Lithman has said would cripple criminal trials.

Outside London’s historic Old Bailey, around 200 legal representatives huddled together in a show of solidarity.

A small number of armed police and a riot van were present at the Old Bailey – normally one of the busiest crown courts in England – which was left operating at a fraction of its usual capacity.

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 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 – around the £27,000 national average, he said, meaning the cuts would push people away from the vital work.

“There are simply going to be no people of any ability prepared to do criminal legal aid work,” Mr Lithman said.

In a dig at the release of the earnings figures, he said he had been contacted by one barrister who was earning £13,680 in her second year of practice.

“You can put out the earnings of five to 10 people, but you can’t run the justice system on the efforts of five to 10 people,” he said.

‘You’d get more for working in a shop’

There’s not just lower pay, there’s also less work, young barrister Marija Brackovic told Channel 4 News, as solicitors will start to do court representation in-house to save money. It leads to untrained lawyers making court representations and a much greater workload for solicitors who have to handle much more work for every case they take on, what she describes as “sausage factory” court representation.

She outlines the current situation for a junior barrister working in criminal law where the fee is £50 a day.

“You get to court at 9am to meet your client at 10am. You could easily be waiting till 4pm to go into court with them because the courts are so full. Then you’ll be out by 5.30pm – it’s a full day’s work and you’d get more for working in a shop. But you’re giving someone advice that could prevent them being taken into custody. It just doesn’t seem worth it.

“And that’s before tax. And then there’s no paid holiday or sick leave.”

The £50 daily fee is before the cuts are put in place.

Brain drain

Ms Brackovic is already taking work in other areas of law to make a living and expects she will not be able to specialise in criminal law: “If I stayed just in criminal law I wouldn’t make it – I wouldn’t be able to work as a barrister.”

Another young lawyer has blogged about the situation. Max Hardy, also a criminal barrister and chair of the Young Barristers Committee, writes:

“The reality is that the criminal bar is in crisis. Chambers cannot afford to recruit pupil barristers and even the vanishingly few that make it through the net are finding that they have joined a profession where they have little hope of paying off the mountainous debts accumulated in study and qualification.”

Another consequence, Mr Hardy warns, is that it will drastically reduce diversity in a profession which is already short on women.

Below: Criminal Bar Association chair Nigel Lithman speaks to barristers outside Southwark Crown Court