Monday 6th of January was a momentous day for the British legal system. For the first time in the history of their profession, barristers staged a strike in protest over proposed cuts to the legal aid bill.
Hundreds of trial lawyers, dressed head to toe in their traditional garb – black gowns, grey wigs, white bands – took part in vocal demonstrations outside the Old Bailey with the aim of convincing the justice secretary, Chris Grayling, to reconsider the planned reductions.
The Ministry of Justice claims that the cuts will slash £220 million from government spending, but the 30% reduction is just another in a long line that has seen legal aid fees budget for criminal cases decrease by 40% since 1997. Many law firms around the country, including Manchester-based criminal law solicitors Maguires Solicitors, rely on Legal Aid funding from the government to carry out cases where the financial situation restricts them from paying the costs.
There are legitimate fears among legal professionals that the new proposals will result in a lower quality of legal representation, more miscarriages of justice and fewer convictions. Nigel Lithman QC, Chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, feels that barristers are being unfairly singled out and that many will leave the profession if the cuts are implemented: “Why not publish the incomes of top surgeons?” Lithman asked. “Why not show the politicians who have incomes from property? We are being singled out. Why such contempt for the criminal bar?”
Lithman’s comments are a reaction to the MoJ’s attempt to paint criminal lawyers as wildly overpaid, a claim that they say is greatly exaggerated. Official figures show that 1,200 barristers (of the some 15,500 the Bar Council say practise in England and Wales) earned a minimum of £100,000 each from criminal legal aid. But barristers counter that after all their expenses are taken into account, including chamber fees and pension provision, they are left with £50,000 in taxable income.
The median income for barristers was shown to be £56,000 but Lithman explains that this doesn’t show the real picture: “Some barristers are earning as little as £13,000 a year. We are seeing more and more bankruptcies in the junior bar. Many are earning less than £25,000 a year.”
However, the MoJ still contend that the current system is too generous. A spokesperson for the department said: “At around £2bn a year we have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world, and it would remain very generous even after reform.”Latest figures show more than 1,200 barristers judged to be working full-time on taxpayer-funded criminal work received £100,000 each in fee income last year, with six barristers receiving more than £500,000 each.
“We entirely agree lawyers should be paid fairly for their work, and believe our proposals do just that. We also agree legal aid is a vital part of our justice system – that’s why we have to find efficiencies to ensure it remains sustainable and available to those most in need of a lawyer. Agencies involved in the criminal justice system will take steps to minimise any upset court disruption could cause for victims and witnesses involved in trials.”
As well as cuts, the MoJ’s Transforming Legal Aid consultation comes with a whole host of propositions, the most radical of which include:
- Prisoners who challenge their treatment in jail will no longer be entitled to legal aid.
- Judicial reviews will become more difficult. Those cases deemed to have a less than 50% chance of success will no longer be funded through legal aid (making it harder to hold the government accountable for unlawful actions).
- A residency test will exclude those with “little or no connection to this country” from receiving support for civil legal actions in England and Wales. The Catholic church has condemned it as harmful to recently arrived victims of human trafficking and domestic abuse.
- A financial eligibility threshold will prevent those with a disposable household income of £37,500 or more from receiving legal aid in the crown court.