The gulf between the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has continued to grow as the CBA ramps up pressure to reject work falling under the Advocates Graduated Fee Scheme (AGFS).

In an announcement issued on 13 May, the CBA encouraged its members to continue rejecting any form of work falling under the AGFS – which has been in effect since 1 April – to operate a ‘no returns’ policy on all work from 25 May and to take part in ‘Days of Action’ to highlight the cuts these barristers face in their fees.

A ‘return’ sees work passed from one barrister to another in the event that the first is not available to take up the work. In essence, this would mean that if the first barrister offered the work either chose to reject it or was unavailable, that would then see it passed on.

Issues from chambers over the AGFS have existed for several months though active calls to reject work grew much louder in March as fear spread that criminal barristers’ fees could fall by as much as 50 per cent.

In a statement issued to its members, the CBA said: “There can be no more moving around of money from a dwindling ‘envelope’ exposing the underlying impoverishment of the scheme and the system. Those who undertake the difficult, complex and time consuming work must be properly paid for it. This includes payment for unused material. Junior barristers must see the possibility of career progression. We must be able to recruit and retain those who want to have a career with us.”

The AGFS was first introduced 22 years ago by the Legal Aid in Criminal and Care Proceedings regulations. The scheme was originally designed to assess payment of advocates in standard criminal cases being heard in the Crown Court. Its success is due to be reviewed 18 to 24 months after its 1 April implementation date.

CBA chair and Red Lion Chambers’ Angela Rafferty QC said: “All our efforts will now be focused on righting the inequities of the scheme. There must be ‘future proofing’ to stop year-on-year decline and the time has now come to pay for the consideration of unused material. The wider criminal justice system cannot be sustained without investment. The solution is not found in moving money around a meagre and inadequate budget – there can be no more robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

While funding exists for cases at the lower end of the criminal Bar, senior clerks are concerned that the reduction in fees could see cases being poorly prepared or a continued rejection following the end of the strike.

One senior source said: “I suspect that the strike will end at some point, but that there will be people continuing to refuse that line of work. The game-changer will be when the courts start to suffer. People are already turning up without representation and that can lead to potential miscarriages of justice which I sense is just around the corner.”