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On Monday 6 January, for the first time in British history, solicitors and barristers walked out of court to protest against government proposals.
Many junior criminal barristers are already earning less than minimum wage and these further cuts are likely to be the final nail in the coffin lid of quality, publicly-funded criminal legal representation.
The proposed cuts are illogical and baffling – getting paid less if your client pleads not-guilty suggests the Government is prepared to encourage miscarriages of justice, or getting paid less per day the longer your case goes on – as if paying less for more difficult cases makes sense.
In a bare-faced attempt to discredit protesting lawyers, the Ministry of Justice rapidly published statistics on the criminal legal aid budget. These figures were an incredibly misleading publicity stunt to decrease sympathy for ‘fat cat lawyers’.
The flailing Bar Standards Board waded in and produced misconceived guidance threatening to discipline any barrister who disrupted the court process to ‘further their own interests’. The Criminal Bar Association politely objected to this portrayal of the walkout and pressed ahead.
The press focus has been on the pay of barristers – perhaps because that’s why people usually strike – but that is not the basic reason that lawyers have taken to the streets.
If forced to it then lawyers will find other work. The truth is that the good criminal lawyers, both defence and prosecution, care about the justice system, they care about equality, about justice being done and the innocent being acquitted. The walkout was a chance for these lawyers to pursue their clients’ best interests ‘without fear or favour’.
There were over 15,000 responses to the Legal Aid consultation and in general these have been ignored. There has been no sign so far that the Government has taken any more notice of the strike; in the Lords this week the government objected to a legal aid budget costing £39 per head each year.
To many members of the British public, and certainly to anyone who has ever needed legal aid, £39 a year would surely seem like a bargain.
The cuts are another step back towards the time when the legal profession and system were the exclusive domain of the rich; in one term of Parliament the Government is unravelling decades of work to promote diversity. Privileged means ‘private law’ and that is all that will soon remain.
Jennifer Blair is a pupil barrister at Garden Court Chambers