Barrister’s demo halts courts

Barristers on strike outside Lewes Crown Court.'Julian Dale, Head of chambers
Barristers on strike outside Lewes Crown Court.'Julian Dale, Head of chambers

Criminal barristers from Eastbourne and the surrounding areas took part in a half-day walk out in protest at government plans to slash legal aid.

Court business at Lewes, Hove and Brighton Crown Courts was brought to a halt on Monday morning as more than 70 barristers walked out of criminal courts in an unprecedented move.

They are angry at plans by Justice Secretary Chris Grayling to cut £220 million from the annual criminal case Legal Aid budget in England and Wales.

Legal Aid is financial help for people accused of crime who cannot afford lawyers themselves.

The Ministry of Justice says it is vital to scale back Legal Aid, the most expensive such scheme in the world, and insists it will remain “very generous” even after the changes.

But members of the Criminal Bar Association say the Legal Aid system is already at breaking point and many members of the profession are leaving because their career is no longer financially viable.

Julian Dale, the head of Eastbourne-based Sussex Chambers, said that over the last six years legal aid rates had already been cut by 37 per cent in real terms and that a “tipping point” had been reached.

He warned that further cuts would make practice unviable for many barristers, who may be forced to leave the profession.

“This was a national day of action for the first time in 500 years,” said Mr Dale, “and all of the courts came to a standstill.

“With these new cuts potentially coming in this April, the whole system will become unworkable as it means another massive reduction in our fees.

“It has now reached the point of no return which is why we have had to take action. We hope the Ministry of Justice will look again at the figures and think again.”

Criminal Bar Association chair Nigel Lithman said the “strike” had the backing of almost every Chambers and accused Justice Secretary Chris Grayling of “manipulating” official figures to falsely portray lawyers doing criminal aid work as high-earning “fat cats”.

Mr Lithman said,“You are going to see cases collapsing, as they have already started. There are cases of murders, murder trials, that have collapsed because of them being inadequately prosecuted – that leads to enormous concerns for the victim’s family.

“Secondly, the barristers will not work, they have made that quite clear, at rates that take them, as one person was telling me of his earnings today, at around £13,000 as a taxable income. That is a somebody with a law degree and a masters in public international law - why would they work at those rates?”

The government argues that its proposed cuts to legal aid are reasonable and will ensure the system remains financially sustainable. “At around £2 billion pounds a year we have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world and it would remain very generous even after reform,” the MOJ in a statement.