Caven blog

Mass solicitor and barrister walkout against Government legal aid fee cuts

For the first time ever barristers across England and Wales have staged a refusal to work in the criminal courts, to raise the issue of the Government’s plans to cut legal aid fees by up to 30%.

They are being joined by solicitors, in what is also an unprecedented move, as they seek to highlight the two major issues at stake – the cutting of fees for legal aid work, and the belief that this will lead to poorer quality legal representation for those people not able to pay privately.

The walkout occurred during the morning of Monday 6 January, in London, Liverpool, Manchester, Cardiff, Birmingham, Leeds and other cities around England and Wales. The description of the action has been carefully worded to avoid being called a strike, as this isn’t permitted.

It is also important to note that trials involving vulnerable people, such as rape victims, won’t be affected.

What do the cuts mean?

In April 2013 the Government’s new legal aid act came into force, which affected the availability of legal aid in areas such as family law. This took away the possibility of legal aid for thousands of people.

The new planned cuts will reduce the pay lawyers receive for doing legal aid work, by 30% in high-cost cases and by 18% in other crown court work. Lawyers argue that fees for criminal cases have already been cut by 40% since 1997, and this will simply lead to less representation for defendants.

The Criminal Bar Association (CBA) is arguing that the cuts ‘pose the most serious threat to the British legal system in more than 400 years’. The chairman of the CBA, Nigel Lithman QC, continued, saying that: ‘A line has to be drawn before it’s too late’.

Praveen Saigal, from PS Law LLP, says that he is seeing morale ‘fall to a new low’ as more and more talented and experienced lawyers leave the criminal justice profession due to cutbacks.

The Government insists that cuts are necessary, and is looking to save more than £220m. Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary, believes that in order to maintain the legal aid system these cuts are required, and that this will still leave the UK with one of the most generous legal systems in the world.

Are these cuts justified?

The perception that lawyers are overpaid is one which is very difficult to argue against when there are certainly some very well-paid professionals. However, legal aid fees for lawyers result in far less than the average lawyer salary.

The CBA claims that the average barrister working on legal aid cases earns around £36,000, and that this would be reduced further with the proposed cuts. This is far removed from the gross figure of £100,000 that the Government is using as justification.

It’s the effect this has that is the issue. Saigal laments that: ‘Young talent is being tempted away from the criminal law profession and is now more likely than ever to focus on more lucrative positions in private-paying areas of law’.

As far as we’re concerned here at Caven, anything which reduces the availability and the quality of legal representation to those that need it is difficult to argue for. We want people to be able to achieve justice whatever their situation, and therefore comparing the UK to other countries is irrelevant.

It will be interesting to see the effect this protest has, as the cuts are due to be phased in from April 2014, just a couple of months away.

Links:

If you need a legal aid solicitor, we work with a few around the UK. Visit our legal aid page to see the list, or find a criminal solicitor such as Praveen Saigal using our criminal law page.

Sources:

BBC
Guardian

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