Crown court cases face disruption on Monday as barristers on the northern circuit plan to stay away from court and attend an all-day meeting in protest against the government’s planned changes to criminal legal aid.
A spokesman for the circuit said members were balloted this week and an ‘overwhelming majority’ expressed support for the meeting. They will debate the proposed changes to the criminal justice system, such as price-competitive tendering, which he warned pose a ‘threat to the future of the profession of criminal barrister’.
He said advance notice has been given to the courts and senior judges so that they can take steps to ‘minimise the inevitable disruption’.
‘The urgency of the situation is the direct result of the unexpected acceleration of the consultation process, which envisages imminent, devastating changes to the criminal justice system and which demands a swift and considered response from barristers who work passionately prosecuting and defending Crown court cases,’ he added.
A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: ‘It would be disappointing if some lawyers were to choose to disrupt court schedules - this would not help them and simply inconveniences the court, the public and their clients.’
She said HM Courts & Tribunal Service will work with others across the criminal justice system to keep disruption to a minimum.
She added: ‘At this stage the government is consulting on proposals to reform legal aid in criminal law, to increase public confidence and encourage efficiency.
‘We encourage lawyers to talk to us about the plans and respond to the consultation, rather than taking disruptive action.’
A letter to the circuits from chief Crown prosecutor Nazir Afzal says the presiding judge for the circuit, Mr Justice Holroyde, has written to circuit leader Richard Pratt QC explaining that the meeting does not provide a ‘sufficiently good reason’ for court hearings not to proceed.
Afzal said: ‘It is also our view that a meeting of barristers does not provide good cause for the usual work of the prosecution to be disrupted.’
He said: ‘We expect that any part-heard trial listed on Monday will continue to be heard with the prosecution fully represented.
‘In respect of new cases listed on 22 April, we expect that counsel will honour their instructions, particularly in respect of fixed trail dates.’
Afzal added: ‘Given the good relationship that has been built up between the CPS and the criminal bar, I would be very disappointed if prosecution work is targeted, or suffers as part of the bar’s wider concerns about quality assurance or the consultation paper issued by the MoJ.
‘This will have an adverse impact on victims and witnesses and the wider community.’
He said the CPS will regard decisions not to honour professional commitments as a ‘very serious step’ that could impact adversely on the effective partnership between the bar and the CPS.
A Bar Council spokeswoman said: ‘There is significant anger and disappointment at the criminal bar at the prospect of further cuts. We are picking through every detail of the consultation paper to understand the full consequences of what is being proposed, to provide the evidence to explain the true ramifications for the justice system.
‘That remains our core and most immediate focus,’ she said.
A spokeswoman for the judges on the circuit said said: 'The position of the judiciary is straightforward. It is constitutionally independent. It will hear any applications to adjourn, taking into account the interests of both parties and the administration of justice, but will only remove a case from the list if an application is made on properly arguable grounds. If no application is made or if it is refused, the court hearing will proceed on Monday as listed,'
She added: 'In recognition of the uncertainty, the court will take steps to minimise any adverse impact on witnesses who have already been warned to attend on Monday.'
A Law Society spokeswoman said: ‘We understand and share the surprise and anger at the government’s proposals among those who work in and care about the criminal justice system. We have made it clear to government that what they propose is unworkable.’
But she said: ‘Until every opportunity to influence the outcome is exhausted, that will remain our focus - working with members to produce alternative proposals to present to government. We invite responses to the Law Society consultation, helping to shape our submission.’