Something peculiar is happening at criminal courts across England and Wales this morning. Barristers from are staging an unprecedented walk out in protest at Justice Secretary Chris Grayling’s plan to trim a further £220 million from the Legal Aid budget. Barristers in wigs and gowns are protesting at at Westminster Magistrates’ Court and at Crown Courts including the Old Bailey.
Since 2010 the Ministry of Justice’s budget has been cut by £1.3 billion, with a further £148 million to be cut over the rest of the parliament. The government asserts that the Legal Aid bill is too high. Since the coalition took power, the bill has reduced by £264 million – about 20 per cent of the total. It’s fallen by almost a third over the past 10 years. The bill for the most serious QC-led cases has fallen by 46 per cent since 2007. The criminal bar complains that stripping a further £220 million from the Legal Aid fund – less than the cost of two miles of the HS2 railway – will leave the independent criminal bar unsustainable.
The government has been guilty of misdirection: in October Grayling was caught out overstating a QC’s fee for a 60-day trial by almost seven times, but in December the new Justice Minister Lord Faulks recognised the criminal bar as ‘a profession in crisis.’
Sections of the press have criticised the Bar for being responsible for the ‘overpriced, agonising racket the British legal system is.’ The blunt characterisation of barristers as Rumpole-esque pinstripe-trouser wearing fat cats fails to delineate between the commercial and criminal bars. Official figures show that last year half of criminal barristers turned over £50,000 or less. Stripping out VAT, clerking, rent and other business expenses, their taxable profit is closer to £28,000. That makes no allowance for pension contributions, holiday pay or sick pay. The MoJ deliberately speaks of ‘fee incomes’ when it means ‘turnover’, as if barristers trouser the whole lot.
Today’s is an odd sort of strike – no picket lines as such, no running battles with the police, and only lasting a morning (3 ‘court hours’). Sarah Forshaw QC explained that the intention is that ‘disruption will be kept to a minimum.’ Barristers refusing to attend court this morning risk being held in contempt of court, convicted, fined for wasted costs, or disciplined by their professional regulator.
Of more immediate concern for the MoJ is the refusal of senior barristers to accept fee cuts in the most serious cases which are ongoing. Barristers have either returned those briefs, or simply refused to take them on at the new rates. Criminal barristers who frequently attend court for no fee at all have today drawn a line, saying they cannot afford to work for a 17 per cent fee cut.
Jon Mack is a criminal barrister at Blackfriars Chambers.