Bar leaders have warned that the dispute over legal aid is not just about fees, calling on parliamentarians to put justice before politics in the aftermath of the acceptance of the government’s £15m offer to end the boycott of new work.
Appearing before the House of Commons’ Justice Committee today Angela Rafferty, chair of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) and Andrew Walker, chair of the Bar Council, called for a protected budget for legal aid. The government could learn from Scotland, where a non-departmental public body of the Scottish government is responsible for managing legal aid, Walker and Rafferty said when questioned by Scottish National Party MP Gavin Newlands.
Rafferty told MPs that a ’protected budget and an independent review’ would be a good way forward for legal aid and might ‘reset some of the problems’ caused by repeated cuts over the years and which prompted barristers to take action.
Walker added: ‘Those who understand the rule of law, understand its importance. Take legal aid out of politics and you have a better hope of getting it right.’ He added that the UK’s international reputation is affected by how justice is treated.
In a ballot that closed yesterday criminal barristers voted (by 51% to 49%) to end their boycott of legal aid work. More than 3,000 votes were cast from a pool of around 3,500 practising criminal barristers. By accepting the government’s £15m offer of investment barristers will bring to a close their action which has seen more than 100 chambers refuse new work.
However Rafferty said: ‘The dispute is not resolved. It’s much wider than just pay. The signs are there that we can work together, possibly cross party, to resolve it. But our patience isn’t infinite, we see this as a next step. If the issues are simply brushed under carpet then they will surface again.’
The CBA has also set up an official campaign to improve the fees and working conditions of prosecutors.
‘For too long prosecutors have tolerated the intolerable too. We must work towards changing this as well as the continued investment in [the advocates’ fee scheme] in the future,’ Rafferty said.