The director of public prosecutions has indicated that the Crown Prosecution Service will not make allowances for the criminal bar’s forthcoming protest action.
However the most senior judges have issued a note giving the judiciary a degree of latitude to allow adjournments.
The Criminal Bar Association announced earlier this month that the first ‘day of action’ by the bar in protest at the government’s cuts to criminal legal aid will be on 6 January – the first day back after the Christmas break. Members of the association have said they will stay away from court on the morning of that day.
Following ‘many queries’ about the position of the courts, the lord chief justice Sir John Thomas and the senior presiding judge Lord Justice Gross sent a note to all presiding and resident judges setting out the judiciary’s position in relation to the strike action in order to ‘minimise uncertainty’.
It said: ‘The position of the judiciary is straightforward. It is constitutionally independent. Monday 6 is a normal working day and as such, the business of the court will go ahead as normal.’
In line with usual practice, the letter said courts should hear any applications to adjourn, taking into account the interests of both parties and the administration of justice. A case should be removed from the list only if an application is made on ‘properly arguable grounds’.
But the note appears to give judges some flexibility, stating that each listing decision is a matter for the individual judge taking into account the particular circumstances of the case.
The director of public prosecutions Alison Saunders (pictured) says that 6 January will be business as usual.
‘We fully understand the anxieties and concerns of the criminal bar at this difficult time, but that does not provide a sufficiently good reason for the work of the prosecution to be disrupted,' she wrote in a note to heads of chambers. 'We expect any court business listed for the morning of 6 January to be prosecuted by the instructed advocate(s) in accordance with their professional obligations and that includes part-heard trials and new cases listed, particularly in respect of fixed-date trials.
‘If instructions have to be returned for reasons beyond counsel’s control, then we expect chambers to secure alternative counsel of suitable experience and expertise to accept the return.’
Given the ‘very good relationship’ that has been built up between the CPS and the criminal bar, Saunders said it would be ‘disappointing’ if prosecution work suffers as a consequence of the bar’s wider concerns about defence funding and quality assurance.
She added: ‘Working together we have jointly discharged our responsibility to deliver a quality prosecution service to the court, the wider community and particularly to victims and witnesses. In our view that should continue on 6 January.’