Lawyers protest outside courts over legal aid cuts

Thousands of criminal case lawyers are boycotting courts in a number of cities across England and Wales, in protest at planned £220m cuts to legal aid - reinforcing the professions' agnst against the cuts

The BBC reported that the Criminal Bar Association said the unprecedented action came with anger at "boiling point". Many Lawyers and senior judges argue the cuts could see their fees fall by up to 30%, reducing the representation available to defendants as the fees are too low for many lawyers to be commercially viable.

The BBC reported that the Ministry of Justice said efficiencies were necessary to ensure legal aid remained "sustainable" which, whilst sound in principle, fails to consider the impact of denying access to justice, both on the profession, the courts and those who need legal advice and representation.

Consula's Martin Callan has been a vocal supporter of campaigns against the legal aid cuts and has lobbied Ken Clarke and Chris Grayling over the past two years.

The BBC reported that Justice minister Shailesh Vara said: "We are living in difficult economic times and lawyers are not immune from the economic climate." Whilst this is factually correct, it does not provide any real or substantive answers to the problems that will result, and the impact of those problems on the Courts.

The BBC reported that the Criminal Bar Association said the action would not jeopardise trials, but warned that if the pay dispute was not resolved, trials due to start after April, including those for murder and rape, could be put at risk.

The Criminal Bar Association also reportedly said there was a mass "non-attendance" at courts in cities including London, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Birmingham, Newcastle, Winchester, Bristol and Cardiff. The main focus of the protest is at Southwark Crown Court, in London.

Lawyers have said on numerous occaisions that they were "not prepared to work at hourly rates lower than the national minimum wage".

The association said legal aid cuts had caused a recent complex fraud trial to be put in jeopardy because 17 sets of chambers had declined to accept the case for four of the eight defendants.

Nigel Lithman QC, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, 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.

"The government says it is tough on crime, but is stripping the criminal justice system of anyone able to adequately prosecute serious criminals or defend those falsely accused.

"We merely seek a pay freeze. What could be more reasonable than that? I have offered to engage with the lord chancellor as to how to make savings across the system."

"Latest figures show more than 1,200 barristers judged to be working full time on taxpayer-funded criminal work received £100,000 each in fee income last year, with six barristers receiving more than £500,000 each.

"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."

Lawyers dispute the figures on fee income and Consula's Martin Callan has been actively involved in the consultation process and can confirm the government's figures are not reliable, but have nonetheless been relied upon. Legal Aid has been at the brunt of cuts by consequtive governments over the past 20 years and is now so significantly reduced that it is no longer fit for purpose, resulting in a growing number of individuals who are being denied access to justice

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