Barristers are staging a mass walkout today in protest against the cuts to legal aid implemented this year.
Counsel in cities across the UK including Birmingham, London, Manchester, Liverpool are voluntarily not attending court, affecting every criminal court in the country.
The Criminal Bar Association (CBA) pledged to take action back in November when the final consultation on proposed cuts to legal aid in criminal work closed and lawyers took to the streets to protest last summer (3 December 2013).
The proposed cuts 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.
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 have been ignored and criticised the figures used to justify the changes.
Chairman of the CBA Nigel Lithman QC said: “A line has to be drawn in the sand before it’s too late. The cuts pose the most serious threat to the British legal system in more than 400 years.
“Who can blame anybody for wishing to protest against swingeing cuts that mean they can’t pay their mortgages or afford to come back to work after being on maternity leave?”
Grayling abandoned plans to introduce competitive tendering for contracts in September but said other cuts would still go ahead. Now the battle is over cuts to fees, most of which could be cut by 17.5 per cent.
The CBA claimed that there was a common misconception that legal aid was a “gravy train” for barristers who earned over £100,000 a year.
Last week the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) released new figures detailing barrister earnings from legal aid which show a mean fee income of £72,000 for the 4,931 barristers who were paid out of the public budget last year. The figures are before tax, expenses and chambers’ fees.
The figures also reveal a median income of £56,000 from public sources including the Legal Aid Agency and the Crown Prosecution Service. But the CBA said 60 per cent of ‘median’ barristers doing legal aid work earned an average of £37,000 per year after expenses and many were working for less than £25,000 before tax.
While the two top-earning legal aid barristers took home between £600,000 and £700,000 those figures could account for cases running over many years and include disbursements for junior barristers. Of the 4,931 barristers, 761 earned between 0-£10,000 from criminal aid work – around 15 per cent of the total.
An MoJ spokesperson said: “We entirely agree lawyers should be paid fairly for their work, and believe our proposals do just that. We also agree legal aid is a vital part of our justice system – that’s why we have to find efficiencies to ensure it remains sustainable and available to those most in need of a lawyer. Agencies involved in the criminal justice system will take steps to minimise any upset court disruption could cause for victims and witnesses involved in trials.”