Bar rates dispute halts Iraqi hearing

A trial of 26 Iraqis has been severely disrupted after several senior barristers refused to accept instructions, marking a further escalation of the bar’s pay dispute.

The strike action forms part of the concerted effort by the criminal bar to turn down all instructions on very high-cost cases (VHCC). This follows the decision by the Government to introduce hourly rates, which has reduced defence barristers’ pay by between 40 and 60 per cent. The Government is reviewing its decision and will draw final conclusions on 28 May.

At least six barristers who were instructed in the Iraqi case have dropped out since they were instructed under the new contract schemes. They were happy to run the cases under the previous payment arrangement. Under the old pay scheme, barristers’ clerks put in a bill to the Legal Services Commission based on a market rate, which was reviewed by a ‘taxation’ master.

Ten Iraqi defendants, at least two of whom are charged with murder and the remainder with affray, have been given junior counsel and have not been assigned silks by the court. Many of the others are allowed silks but so far it is understood that none have agreed to take them.

One partner at a firm involved in the case said: “We tried four different sets of chambers in Nottingham and couldn’t get senior counsel. We then tried London chambers and they refused too. We’ve also tried Manchester and Birmingham without luck.” The firm had meetings last week with counsel to resolve the crisis.
Digby Johnson, a partner at Nottingham firm the Johnson Partnership, who is acting for the 10 defendants who have been assigned only junior counsel, said: “There are still plenty of barristers doing VHCC work in London and Birmingham. However, we don’t have anyone from Nottingham because people locally have been put under pressure by the movers and shakers in the local bar and a number of counsel have returned instructions.”

Until counsel can be found, it is unclear how the trial will proceed.