British Barristers Come Together to Dispute Cuts to Legal Aid
For the first time since they took a place on the bench in the late 13th century, barristers across England and Wales took a half-day off work to come together and stage strikes in protest to government cuts to legal aid.
Demonstrations outside courthouses up and down the country were joined by hundred of barristers in full court attire to protest against planned cuts to the legal aid system, which the lawyers say have the potential of endangering the criminal justice system.
Legal aid is given to those who are unable to afford a solicitor themselves, in both criminal and civil cases, and the government has argued that these people won’t be grossly affected by the legal aid cuts.
But the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) disagrees. The CBA was behind the half-day demo, with Chairman Nigel Lithman QC joining a group of about 100 protesters outside Southwark Crown Court in London. “The very future of our criminal system is in jeopardy by the imposition of savage cuts to [legal aid] funding,” Mr Lithman informed the crowd.
Britain spends around £2 billion a year on legal aid, making it one of the most expensive legal systems in the world. In a statement, the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) said that it “would remain very generous even after reform”. Currently, the £2 billion is roughly evenly split between criminal and civil case, and although it may be true the amount budgeted for legal aid will be more than other countries even after cuts, it means that barristers and solicitors will also suffer a large pay cut.
To the public it may seem that lawyers, with their high-paying professions, should not be able to quibble about money, but our barristers and solicitors are not protesting because they want to earn more money. As Mr Lithman said: “We merely seek a pay freeze. What could be more reasonable than that?”.
No, the lawyers are protesting because they feel that the criminal justice system is being undervalued. They believe the cuts will lead to top quality legal professionals leaving criminal cases completely, leaving behind the lawyers fresh from graduation, lacking the necessary experience for the major cases. “The guilty will go unpunished, and the innocent will be wrongly convicted,” worries senior barrister Mukul Chawla QC.
The reforms are going to be in effect from from April, with the government hoping to cut £220 million from the budget for legal aid 2019, reducing it by up to 30% in some cases. Criminal case legal aid funding has already been cut by 40% in the past seven years, leading to lawyers saying that enough is enough, the latest cuts are the final straw. The plans have also been condemned by the Treasury Counsel, the Bar Council, and the Law Society.
According to the Human Rights Review 2012: “everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing”, which will not be possible if many people cannot afford a hearing in the first place. That is what the barristers of Britain have come together to demonstrate for – basic human rights.