Nearly 200 junior criminal barristers have said they support a return to direct action in the new year if the legal aid funding crisis is not resolved.
According to the barristers, the government’s pledge last month to add an extra £8m into the pot for the Advocates Graduated Fee Scheme (AGFS) amounted to an earlier promise on which the ’government sought to renege’.
Initially, £15m had been pledged by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) but research by The Law Society and subsequently the Bar Council, revealed the calculation was based on outdated figures and in fact amounted to only £8m.
The latest call to action appears in an open letter co-signed by 193 barristers addressed to Chris Henley QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA). The juniors say discussions on potential action will resume in the New Year.
In the letter, the barristers also question Henley’s view, outlined in one of the weekly messages he sends to criminal barristers, that ‘tangible progress’ on the AGFS had been made. ‘Regrettably, we do not share this optimism. We are also underwhelmed by the degree of progress,’ the letter states. ‘What we want is a coherent and sustainable system of remuneration for work done. Plainly, we can only speak on behalf of those who have signed this letter, but for our part, we are in favour of direct action in the New Year, if needed to bring the MoJ back to the table.’
The letter calls for ‘dramatic changes’ to how barristers are remunerated and a ‘significant increase in funding across the board (in both defence and prosecution funding).
It also expresses concern at the gap between those at the top of the profession and those at the lower end – warning that the junior bar is ‘haemorrhaging talent’. ‘When senior members inevitably begin to choose their cases more shrewdly, those of us lower down will face the unenviable choice of taking on cases we fear are too complex for our call or having gaps in our diaries,’ the letter says.
Around 100 chambers refused to accept new work earlier this year in protest at legal aid funding. The chambers were also due to begin a ‘no returns’ policy whereby they would have both refused new work and refused to take on cases in the event of a diary clash. However, action was suspnded after the MoJ made its offer.