Campaigners staged their first demonstration against legal cuts yesterday evening outside the Ministry of Justice.
Criminal defence barristers are refusing to take instructions under a reformed legal aid payment scheme that came into force at the beginning of the month. Before yesterday’s “vigil for justice” the Bar Council, which represents barristers in England and Wales, attempted to regain the initiative in the dispute, which had largely been led by the Criminal Bar Association.
Andrew Walker, QC, the council’s chairman, said: “As a result of repeated cuts, our justice system has deteriorated over many years to breaking point and we are now seeing the cumulative impact on practitioners seeking to operate within it — particularly the criminal and family Bar — on all others working within it and on members of the public passing through it.”
As many as 90 sets of criminal law barristers’ chambers have joined the action, which affects crown court trials and hearings.
Walker said that the need for the London demonstration was “a troubling reflection of the current state of affairs, in that those protesting against the cuts to legal aid and the wider justice system feel driven to take direct action to make their concerns heard”.
He added that it was “heartening to see so many across the public and legal sectors, who truly understand the desperate need for change, come together in recognition of such a crucial issue and call on the government to fulfil its responsibility to the public to deliver a justice system that works as intended.
“True and proper justice has no substitute; it is not an optional extra for which funding requirements can be ignored — otherwise the public will pay the ultimate price”.
The ministry has condemned the strike as unacceptable. “Any action to disrupt the courts is unacceptable and we are taking all necessary steps to ensure legal representation is available for defendants in criminal cases,” it said.
It added that the reforms “replace an archaic scheme under which barristers billed by pages of evidence” and that far from cutting fee rates, “murder is one of the many categories of cases which will see an uplift in fees under the new scheme”.