Junior barristers will be paid as little as £14 a day – well below the minimum wage – under the government’s proposed criminal legal aid cuts, the House of Commons justice committee heard today.

The cross-party committee was taking evidence from bodies representing the legal community, which strongly opposes the planned reforms. Even some Conservative members of the committee sought to distance themselves from the proposals.

Criminal Bar Association chair Michael Turner QC (pictured) highlighted the precarious financial situation of junior barristers, some of whom already earn so little that they are on income support, he said. Under the proposed cuts in some cases, fees will fall to £14 a day – well below the minimum wage.

Bar Council chair Maura McGowan QC called for the reforms, which include the introduction of price-competitive tendering, the removal of client choice and fee cuts of 17.5%-30%, to be put on hold to enable a full review of the criminal justice system.

Law Society president Lucy Scott-Moncrieff echoed that call, branding the government’s current plans ‘bonkers’.

Scott-Moncrieff said that the Law Society is working with others to come up with alternatives that she said ‘should appeal to the government, because they are market driven rather than state controlled’.

She did not go into details, but said they will involve co-operation with government, which she said will require it to give up some ‘bad habits’ including very short contracts.

One aspect that she did reveal is being looked at is the duty solicitor scheme, which Scott-Moncrieff said ‘creates a distortion in the market’. She said the Society is ‘in discussions’ with the profession over how to change it.

Questioned on the image of legal aid lawyers as ‘fat cats’, Scott-Moncrieff cited the average £25,000 earnings of a legal aid lawyer, compared with nurses’ £29,500, teachers’ £34,000, GPs’ £56,000 and MPs’ £65,000.

McGowan said that, under the current rates, the most experienced silks doing the most serious cases such as murder get paid £550 a day (covering a full day in court and two hours preparation). Half of that has to be taken out to cover overheads, a figure she said that the government accepts.

So in reality, she said they earn £275 a day. Under the proposed cuts, those figures will fall to £350 and £175 respectively.

All witnesses, who included chair of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association Bill Waddington, echoed concerns raised in their consultation responses that the proposals would cause a decline in quality, and suggested that savings could be made elsewhere by reducing the inefficiencies that exist in the criminal justice system.

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