Criminal barristers have voted by a narrow margin to accept the government’s offer of £15m in justice investment, which will end their boycott of new legal aid work. 

A total of 3,038 barristers voted on the proposals with 1,566 (51.5%) voting to accept the proposal and 1,472 voting against (48.45%).

More than 100 chambers have been refusing to take on new legal aid work under the advocates graduated fee scheme (AGFS) since 1 April in protest at what they say are continuing cuts to legal aid fees for barristers. A policy of ‘no returns’ which had been suspended till today, will not now proceed.

However, the tight nature of the vote will ensure the criminal bar will remain outspoken, its chair said today.

Angela Rafferty QC said: ‘Whilst the majority wishes to accept the proposal it cannot be said that the anger and disillusionment has gone away. Indeed it is exceptionally strong. The Criminal Bar is not going to be quiet.’

She added: ‘This outcome is neither a defeat nor a victory. The criminal bar has faced degradation and despair and it still does. This is a step forward. We must all ensure we do not take any more steps back.’

CBA membership was due to escalate its action last month by enacting a ‘no returns’ policy, under which barristers would have refused to take over cases when diaries clash. However, this was suspended after the government made its offer to allow criminal barristers to vote on whether to accept or reject the proposals.

The government’s offer is:

  • Extra funding of £8m for the fraud, drug and child sexual abuse cases that lose out under the new scheme;
  • A 1% increase in AGFS from April 2019 (£2.5m);
  • Further funding of about £4.5m, mainly for juniors.

The Law Society and other solicitor representatives have voiced hopes that a similar deal can be reached in relation to the litigators’ graduated fee scheme (LGFS) ahead of a High Court judicial review hearing this summer.

Law Society president Joe Egan said that although the dispute seems narrowly to have been resolved – the crisis in the criminal justice system has not gone away.

’Twenty years of cuts have heaped colossal pressure on the system, and those who work hard every day to ensure the rule of law is upheld,’ he said.

Egan added: ‘All through the barristers’ strike solicitors have kept working – this commitment to the rule of the law has again gone unrewarded. We need a change of approach by the government. If that doesn’t happen they alone will be to blame for the collapse in confidence in our justice system that will surely follow.’

Bill Waddington, chair of the Criminal Law Solicitors Assoication, said: ’Solicitor advocates were not eligible for the this vote, and no solicitors’ associations were consulted on the terms of this offer. We remain concerned that legal aid as a whole is in desperate need of investment to reverse decades of decline. This is a very small step in the right direction . We look forward to our forthcoming discussions with the government about the need for investment and reform in the LGFS, legal aid generally and the wider criminal justice system’.

A MoJ spokesperson said: ’We welcome the result of the ballot, which is the right outcome for all - not least victims, witnesses and anyone encountering the criminal justice system.

’Criminal advocates play a crucial role in upholding the rule of law and we greatly value the work they do, which is why we have worked closely with the bar throughout this process and listened carefully to their concerns. We understand the strength of feeling that remains and are committed to working with the sector to support and strengthen the profession, making it fit for the modern age and accessible to those who seek to join it.’