Barristers may strike over legal aid reforms and fees
Criminal Bar Association head accuses government of duplicity as he warns of action that hit courts across England and Wales
Owen Bowcott, legal affairs correspondent
The Guardian, Friday 18 May 2012
The head of the Criminal Bar Association is to raise the spectre of strike action by criminal barristers across England and Wales in protest at cuts in fees and legal aid reforms.
In a confrontational speech, Max Hill QC, will accuse politicians of “duplicity”. signalling a significant souring of the relationship between the legal community and the coalition government.
Disappointed by criminal fees being repeatedly frozen, then cut by 13.5% by the last Labour government and again by a further 11% by the current administration. Hill will declare that the age of “Rumpole is dead”.
The popular perception of “fat cat” lawyers wallowing in claret is inaccurate, Hill will assert, to an audience expected to include the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge. “We may be [Rumpole's] successors but we spend our days worrying about paying the mortgage; worrying about how we can ever afford a pension.”
He will declare: “So let us fight, and let us remember the option to strike … demand better treatment. No more cuts, I say, either for the defence or the prosecution. Do not allow them to say that we must take our share of future cuts demanded by the comprehensive spending review.
“The criminal bar suffered cuts by stagnation in our fees for 15 years before the spending review. Did public sector wages stand still from the mid-nineties? Of course not. But our fees did. And when that argument meets with a hostile reaction, as it will, be ready to strike.”
Any decision to strike is only likely to taken following further conversations with all the 3,500 members of the Criminal Bar Association in England and Wales.
The decision to slice £350m out of the Ministry of Justice’s annual civil legal aid budget has further contributed to the mood of dismay at the bar, Hill will say. He will say the Legal Aid (Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders) Act “will leave many with no recourse to the law when things go badly wrong, and necessary litigation is being sacrificed on the altar of cost despite all of the right arguments of principle being brought to bear”.
Politicians, Hill alleges, express “confidence that the bar will continue to play its vital role in the criminal justice system, when they should be telling the truth, which is: ‘We the government are prepared to settle for cheap, partial justice, but we will con the public into believing it is greedy lawyers who are to blame’.
“In the face of such duplicity, I can and do claim that the role reversal is complete. We at the criminal bar uphold the public interest in access to justice and the maintenance of a proper criminal justice system, whilst it is the government who are obsessed by money.”
Lawyers are the latest professional group to oppose cuts in funding. Last week more than 30,000 police officers marched through London protesting about the impact of government policies on their pay, pensions and working conditions.
Hill’s speech to the CBA also coincides with a decision by the Solicitors Regulation Authority to scrap the minimum wage for trainee solicitors from 2014. The national minimum wage of £6.08 per hour will be the only requirement after that date.
The grievances are widely felt within the Bar, Hill argues. A survey of more than 1,600 CBA members found that 89% were both “prepared to take direct lawful action” and “do not consider the current level of fees for publicly funded defence work is proper and fair remuneration”. More than 80% had suffered from delays in payments by the Legal Services Commission.
Barristers’ “greatest weakness” in the past, he suggests, had been the “reluctance to use our heavy weaponry. A reluctance to use the ultimate weapon; namely stopping the courts, rather than being the backbone of the court system, which we are year in, year out”.
In some cases barristers are facing bankruptcy, Hill will say. One anonymous comment he quoted from the survey said: “The more that those who work in this field are hit by cuts in fees and uncertainty of work and/or a level of earning, the heavier the costs and the more likely they are to outweigh the benefits of stimulation, intellectual challenge and development and the fulfilment inherent in public service.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “Striking is never the answer to resolving complaints. The changes we have made to legal aid are necessary and barristers are still paid well for legal aid cases.”