Criminal barristers have voted unanimously in favour of strike action if the government proceeds with further criminal legal aid cuts.
Mark George QC, head of chambers at Garden Court North, proposed a resolution calling all criminal barristers to withdraw their labour and not attend magistrates’ or Crown courts on ‘a day or days of action’.
The motion was passed unanimously at a meeting organised by the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) on Saturday. It also demanded that the government stays all its current proposals for legal aid and that the justice secretary engages meaningfully with the profession.
George told his colleagues: ‘I call it a strike. Others of a more delicate disposition may not want to call it that. We can call it the teddy bears’ picnic for all I care, but we must do it.’
He added: ‘I appreciate for some of you, this may sound radical. It is radical. We are in a radical situation. It’s time to fix the bayonets because we are not going to go down without a fight.’
The meeting agreed a resolution passed by the CBA chair Nigel Lithman QC (pictured) that senior barristers will not accept very high cost case (VHCC) work paid at the revised rates and will return any work to which the rates apply.
Former CBA chair Michael Turner QC called for a pause before implementing any of the current proposals to allow time for the proper consideration of the recently commission review of criminal advocacy. His resolution was also passed unanimously.
A resolution to support the junior bar against the government ‘spin’ that junior barristers will benefit from the cuts, when in fact it will wipe them out, was also passed.
On the wider cuts, further motion deplored the ‘contemptuous’ way the publicly funded bar is treated with the proposed cuts in relation to prison law, judicial review, imposing a financial eligibility threshold in the Crown court, introducing a residence test, reducing expert fees and removing the ‘borderline’ cases from the civil means test.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: ‘At around £2bn a year we have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world. Just like many hard-pressed families and businesses, we have no choice but to make savings. QCs in very high cost cases are well-remunerated - around two thirds of criminal barristers contracted to VHCCs receive fee incomes of over £100,000 - and even after our changes would continue to be paid generously.
‘We have engaged constructively and consistently with lawyers - including revising some proposals in response to their comments - and continue to do so.
‘We are confident that advocates will work at the revised rates and will continue to be well rewarded from legally aided work. Any disruption to court schedules is unnecessary, and barristers choosing to try and do so inconvenience their clients and hard-working taxpayers.’