Criminal courts across England and Wales were severely disrupted yesterday as barristers and solicitors staged an unprecedented mass walkout in protest at British government plans to slash legal aid fees by up to 30 per cent.
It is the first time UK barristers have withdrawn their labour, the Criminal Bar Association said, and the first time the two wings of the legal profession have taken co-ordinated, national action.
Thousands of barristers and solicitors working on publicly funded cases refused to enter court yesterday morning for a half-day demonstration aimed at forcing the justice minister, Chris Grayling, into a rethink of plans designed to save £220 million (HK$2.8 billion) a year.
Lawyers have been careful to avoid describing the action as a strike because that would raise questions about contractual obligations to the Legal Aid Agency. But criminal barristers say the protest reflects mounting resentment over successive reductions in legal aid fees, which have already resulted in cuts of 40 per cent for criminal cases since 1997.
They warn that if the Ministry of Justice enforces the cuts it will lead to lower quality legal representation, miscarriages of justices and more criminals walking free from court. No other public sector has been subjected to such swingeing cuts, they argue.
The protest has been co-ordinated with the Justice Alliance, which is supported by trade unions, charities and organisations such as Amnesty UK, Liberty, Unite, and the Howard League for Penal Reform.
Janis Sharp, the mother of computer hacker Gary McKinnon who fought extradition to the US, was expected to be among those addressing a demonstration outside Westminster Magistrates' Court in London. She said: "Without legal aid, unless you have money, you'll have no access to justice.
"For all the future Garys who find themselves needing astute legal advice, I plead with the government and politicians from all parties to think again before implementing cuts that would affect our most vulnerable. Cuts which would take a moment to impose but whose damage would take a lifetime to reverse."
Over the past year, judges have also signalled their concern about the scale of legal aid cuts. The courts service, however, views today as a "normal working day". The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas, warned judges before Christmas of the planned disruption. His note stressed that the judiciary was "constitutionally independent" and that "Monday 6 is a working day and as such, the business of the court will go ahead as normal".
In some cases, applications have been made to adjourn.
The chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, Nigel Lithman QC, said cases involving vulnerable individuals, such as rape victims, would not be disrupted. The Law Society, which represents solicitors, would ensure that duty solicitors are available for suspects who were held in police custody over the weekend.
The dispute has become more polarised as the Ministry of Justice attempts to portray criminal lawyers as overpaid fat cats, and criminal barristers point out that figures based on gross fees are wildly misleading. Ministry figures show that 1,200 barristers earned a minimum of £100,000 each from criminal legal aid last year. Barristers contend that by the time value added tax, chambers fees, pension provision, travelling and other expenses have been deducted, that figure is equivalent to a minimum of £50,000 each in taxable income.
"Why not publish the incomes of top surgeons?" Lithman asked. "Why not show the politicians who have incomes from property? We are being singled out. Why such contempt for the criminal bar?"
The ministry figures show that criminal barristers had a median fee income of £56,000, Lithman said, but that was before all other costs had been deducted. "Some barristers are earning as little as £13,000 a year."
Lithman said experienced barristers were deserting the criminal justice system. "It will lead to a collapse in standards of representation, more miscarriages of justice and more of the guilty going free."
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: "At around £2 billion a year we have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world, and it would remain very generous even after reform."