The head of the Criminal Bar Association has hailed the ‘extraordinary’ commitment of barristers participating in a nationwide protest over legal aid funding – with trials being listed deep into 2023.
Since 11 April, hundreds of barristers have adopted ‘no returns’ – declining to cover for colleagues on cases that have been ‘returned’ – over the government’s refusal to increase criminal legal aid advocacy fees by 25%.
Today, CBA chair Jo Sidhu QC said that the action was already causing widespread disruption and ‘the breadth and depth of commitment to the pursuit of our action has been nothing short of extraordinary’.
Sidhu said: ‘Each day, we hear multiple examples of cases that cannot proceed for want of a defence advocate, including many serious multi-handed trials which now face further substantial delays. The inability of our courts to find substitute barristers has invariably resulted in lengthy adjournments which will only exacerbate the already dismal statistics on the speed at which cases are being completed.
‘Further, as trials are postponed, the backlog grows ever longer with the daily arrival of new cases into the system pushing it closer towards gridlock. We are already seeing list officers struggling to find alternative dates within a reasonable time, and instances of trials being postponed deep into 2023 and beyond are rapidly becoming the norm.
'Such is the importance and value of our goodwill that, when it is suspended, the fragility of our criminal justice system is painfully exposed. The public is watching, and government must understand that time is not on their side.'
The CBA met the Ministry of Justice last week, where it proposed a mechanism to inject an immediate fee increase for current cases.
Sidhu said: ‘With the most recent Bank of England forecast that inflation is set to rise to 10% this year, it does not take a mathematician to understand that government’s proposal to increase AGFS fees by 15% equates, in real terms, to a mere 5% rise. Given that criminal barristers have already lost an average of 23% in earnings from legal aid in a single year at the height of the pandemic, which itself follows a decline in our real incomes of 28% over the last two decades, the CBA’s demand for a 25% rise is entirely reasonable. Even that figure reduces to 15% in real terms when spiralling inflation is taken into account.’
Ministers have repeatedly defended its reforms, telling practitioners at a Law Society webinar last week that securing £135m from the Treasury was not easy.
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