Barristers have stepped up their protest to legal aid cuts with plans for a full-scale walkout on 7 March, which will see them refuse to turn up to court or cover other members’ cases.
It is a significant escalation on January’s strikes, when barristers showed their disdain for the budget cuts with a half-day strike (6 January 2014). Criminal Bar Association (CBA) members will withdraw from criminal cases in magistrates and crown courts and refuse to cover cases for each other, a practice usually undertaken for little or no pay (29 November 2013).
It comes after meetings held yesterday (11 February) between the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and criminal lawyers at the Law Society, where the MoJ made it clear that it would press ahead with plans to cut £220m from the legal aid budget. The cuts follows a 30 per cent pay reduction for very high cost cases.
The CBA said: “No other section of society and no other publicly funded profession face such an onslaught or have been subjected to a series of fee cuts already imposed year on year, the last of which we say will continue to deliver savings not yet properly calculated into the Ministry’s budget.
“The independent Criminal Bar cannot survive such cuts and the fabric of the criminal justice system will be ripped apart as a result.”
The 7 March date will coincide with a training day being called for solicitors.
The proposed cuts by the MoJ will see a fifth shaved off the legal aid budget by 2018. In April Justice Secretary Chris Grayling announced plans to chop 30 per cent from the £2bn-a-year bill despite 40 per cent planned reductions set in motion in 1997 (2 December 2013).
The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act came into effect in April 2013 and outlined a series of radical changes to legal aid. Those included cutting barristers’ fees for legal aid work and removing funding from many areas of work previously covered by legal aid such as divorce and custody battles.
A revised set of proposals was published on 6 September and a new consultation was launched but the Bar Council and CBA have said their suggestions for alternative savings had been ignored by the Government and criticised the figures used to justify the changes.
CBA Chairman Nigel Lithman QC said: “This appears to be a wholly reasonable and proportionate response to the conduct of the MoJ. Of course, were the Ministry to agree to halt the cuts – at least pending the Jeffrey Review as we have proposed – and engage meaningfully in an effective dialogue with the CBA, such steps would become unnecessary.”