Trials grind to halt as barristers go on first strike in 500 years over fee cut
Protest over a one-third cut in fees due to come into force in April
Barristers and solicitors outside Southwark Crown Court, London, during a nationwide strike against Government plans to cut fees as part of a bid to slash £220 million from the legal aid budget by 2018/19. Photograph: PA
Hundreds of barristers in England and Wales held their first strike yesterday in protest at a one-third cut in fees, which is due to come into force in April, and which they say will cripple defendants’ rights to legal protection.
The morning strike led to postponement of trials and hearings throughout England and Wales, while barristers, complete with gowns and wigs, protested outside courthouses, carried placards declaring “Save British Justice”.
The strike – the first recorded in 500 years – brought cases, including the high-profile News of the World Old Bailey trial, where former editors Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson are facing serious charges, to a halt until 2pm.
The barristers and the ministry of justice have clashed frequently in recent days over the size of barristers’ earnings, with the latter claiming that a full-time criminal lawyer earns £100,000 a year.
Rejecting claims of high pay, however, the head of the Criminal Bar Association, Nigel Lithman, told a protest outside Southwark Crown Court in London that more than 2,600 barristers – half the Bar Council’s membership – earn less than £35,000 annually.
One barrister “with a degree not only in law but a master’s in public international law, who did an internship at the United Nations”, worked a six-day week for a taxable income in the last year of £13,806, he said.
However, the ministry of justice said the mean income for barristers is £72,000 annually, and the median is £56,000, while many of those with much lower earnings only do criminal work as part of their caseload.
However, the Criminal Bar Association insisted the ministry has padded earnings figures by including VAT. “Why should it? It’s not our money,” Mr Lithman told barristers.
Defending the cutbacks, justice minister Shaliesh Vara said the Criminal Bar Association’s claims that legal aid is being cut by a third applies only to one in every 100 cases heard in the crown courts.
However, barristers warn that the cuts being made will impede a defendant’s right in so-called “very high-cost criminal cases” because the scale of the fee cut will make much of the work currently done impossible.
The barristers’ action was supported by solicitors, many of whom are furious with the stand taken in negotiations with ministers by their own body, the Law Society – which, they say, bordered on the timid.
“We are concerned that we are going to create a two-tier justice system – those who can afford to pay will pay, leaving the poor to be represented by increasingly inexperienced and poorly paid lawyers,” said Tony Meisels of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association.