The 4,000 Criminal Bar Association members criticise lack of payment for new responsibilities on disclosure of evidence. Criminal courts across England and Wales are facing disruption after barristers threatened direct action in protest at a new legal aid payments scheme.
Angela Rafferty QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA), said her 4,000 members were at breaking point due to extra responsibilities being imposed over disclosure of evidence.
The collapse of a series of rape trials has highlighted growing problems over of the volume of documents in criminal cases generated by mobile phones and digital technology.
A protest meeting was held at the Law Society in central London on Monday evening with the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association and the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association to coordinate action over cuts to legal aid, the burdens of disclosure and racial inequality in the justice system.
“For years we have watched the wheels coming off and the gradual build up to a crisis,” said Greg Fox smith, of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association.
The former Conservative MP and barrister Jerry Hayes told the meeting that direct action through mass walkouts was needed to make the government realise that it needs to increase funding to the criminal justice system. “We have to be united,” he said, “and we are going to have to bring the system to a halt.”
In a statement published on the CBA’s website, Rafferty said the results of a ballot for direct action would be published this week.
“The signs are that there will be overwhelming support for unified action. We expect the membership to reject the levels of funding offered in the new scheme … The last thing we want to do is not to work or to take action … However, everything is at breaking point at once, including us.”
The barristers’ immediate objection is to changes to the advocates’ graduated fee scheme (AGFS), which barristers claim represents a further cut to their income.
Rafferty added: “The levels of remuneration are unacceptable for many kinds of complex, important cases. There is no payment at all for disclosure or the vast quantities of evidence likely to be served on us in cases going forward.”
Solicitors and barristers last took direct action against cuts to legal aid in 2014 and 2015, boycotting some hearings. Resentment among legal professionals has resurfaced as the Ministry of Justice’s budget has been progressively squeezed. The MoJ has suffered the deepest cuts of any Whitehall department since 2010 and closed more than 220 courts across England and Wales.
No decision has yet been taken on what form the protests will take if the ballot supports action. In the past lawyers have adopted a policy of “no returns” – refusing to cover hearings when other barristers cannot appear. Others have suggested refusing to accept work under the new AGFS payment scheme.
The Law Society is already fighting legal action over cuts to fees paid to defence solicitors for reading criminal evidence, warning that the changes will lead to more miscarriages of justice. The body, which represents solicitors in England and Wales, estimates it will reduce payments by 5-6% for crown court trials.
An MoJ spokesperson said: “The reformed AGFS scheme was designed with considerable input from the bar and will create a simpler and more modern pay system in legal aid funded cases.
“It is incorrect that these changes represent cuts to the barrister fees overall. In fact they will ensure that pay better reflects the actual work being done by defence advocates in the crown court.”
Report By: Mohd. Taasir Ali, Student Reporter, INBA