Austerity measures attracted outrage from an unlikely quarter on Monday as criminal barristers protested at the government’s proposed cuts to legal aid.
On the same day that chancellor George Osborne outlined a further £12bn of public spending cuts, courts across England and Wales played host to a much less typical kind of anti-austerity anguish. Bewigged barristers, joined by solicitors and members of the public, brandished signs saying “Save British Justice” and “#fight4legalaid”.
While hundreds voiced their discontent in public, thousands of criminal barristers stayed out of court until at least 2pm on Monday in an act of “mass non-attendance” – the first such walkout in 400 years.
The protests came in response to plans by the Ministry of Justice to cut publicly funded fee rates by up to 30 per cent.
The budget for legal aid – introduced after the second world war and designed to provide representation for those unable to afford it – is £1.8bn this financial year, a 7.7 per cent fall year on year.
Criminal barristers – who are on average paid less than their commercial counterparts – say falling rates are threatening the continued existence of the criminal bar and the dispensation of justice.
“To defend people with no money is hugely important, but we are getting to the stage where the criminal bar cannot make it sustainable,” said Sarah Forshaw QC, of barristers 5KBW and leader of the southeastern circuit.
Mrs Forshaw said there was also some sympathy from fellow barristers specialising in commercial law who were concerned that the UK’s reputation as a centre of legal excellence could be undermined by the changes and an exodus of barristers from the profession.
The protests, which took place outside courts in England and Wales on Monday morning, including in Birmingham and Southwark and the Old Bailey in London, was organised by the Criminal Bar Association, which represents more than 4,000 criminal barristers.
They say the government’s proposed cuts, due to be implemented for trials from April, follow 40 per cent cuts already applied since 1997.
Hourly rates are set to be cut by 30 per cent for so-called very high cost crime (VHCC) cases from April, which include white-collar fraud trials.
Karl Turner, Labour MP for Kingston upon Hull East and a former criminal barrister, said the cuts were part of an “ideological drive to undermine the welfare state”.
“The profession can’t take any more cuts to legal aid,” he said.
Defendants are struggling to get barristers to represent them at the new rates.
Under the rates, for VHCC cases, an experienced junior barrister would see pay drop from £61-£79 an hour to £49-£55 an hour.
It is difficult to assess precisely how much criminal barristers earn because of fluctuations in the frequency of cases they handle and their status as self-employed.
At the protest outside the Old Bailey, attended by 150 barristers and solicitors, Mukul Chawla QC, head of chambers at 9-12 Bell Yard, read a letter on behalf of the southeastern circuit saying that most criminal barristers or solicitors “do not earn the mythical sums suggested”.
According to the Ministry of Justice, the mean income for the 4,931 barristers claiming money through legal aid schemes in the financial year to April 2013 was £72,000. This figure, however, does not include VAT, professional insurance and expenses, and may take into account money earned over several years.
Barristers say they already do significant unpaid overtime on complex cases as hours have to be preapproved by the Legal Aid Authority. Mr Chawla notes that as a general rule of thumb, one minute a page is permitted for reading statements and 30 seconds a page for reading exhibits.
The Criminal Bar Association points to government figures that showed that 60 per cent of “median” barristers doing legal aid work earn an average of £37,000 a year after expenses. The CBA claims that many are working for less than £25,000 before tax.
It says barristers, who are self employed and so do not receive holiday or sick pay, can face a rate as low as £20 a day, once the hours of preparation, time in court and chambers’ fees are included.
The CBA says that the cuts have recently led to one criminal case, a complex fraud trial, being placed in jeopardy because a representative for four of the eight defendants on trial approached 17 sets of chambers – and every one of them declined to accept the case.
Nigel Lithman QC, chairman of the CBA, 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?”
He said he had heard of a number of examples of low-paid barristers including a young woman in her second year of practice who had taxable income of £13,800 and a 60-year-old man who made a loss and would have had to file for bankruptcy had he not received an inheritance.
“People are not prepared to work for the rates being offered,” he added.
The MoJ believes the cuts are necessary. “We agree legal aid is a vital part of our justice system. That’s why we have to find efficiencies to ensure it remains sustainable,” a spokesperson said.