Criminal barristers have responded to a letter from the Crown Prosecution Service warning them that they may lose work if they take part in a planned day of action in protest over criminal legal aid cuts on Friday.
The chief crown prosecutor for London Baljit Ubhey wrote to heads of chambers last Thursday, giving them until the following day to confirm whether members of chambers would work as normal on 7 March.
Ubhey said: ‘The CPS enjoys an effective and mutually beneficial relationship with the criminal bar and with your chambers in particular. It is a customer/supplier relationship built on trust and the regular provision of a reliable service.
‘The CPS and wider criminal justice system has benefited from the skills, commitment and dedication of prosecuting counsel and, in turn, many counsel have benefited from a regular supply of prosecution work.’
She said whatever the ‘deeply held’ concerns that barristers have in relation to legal aid fees, they have no quarrel over the terms of conditions of prosecution work. It would, she said, be ‘wholly wrong’ for prosecution work to be ‘targeted’ by barristers.
Ubhey warned of the adverse impact any such action will have on victims and witnesses and the wider community.
The CPS, she said, expects prosecuting counsel in part-heard trials and other fixtures on 7 March to attend court.
‘If barristers decide not to honour their professional commitments in respect of CPS instructions then their own actions could cause a detrimental impact on the positive relationship that we have hitherto enjoyed,’ warned Ubhey.
Responding, Mukul Chawla QC, head of chambers at 9-12 Bell Yard, said Ubhey was in no position to ‘dictate’ to members of chambers what they should do; rather he confirmed that it was a matter for the individual barristers.
He said it was impossible to distinguish between prosecuting and defence counsel as almost all do both.
Chawla highlighted the ‘devastating’ effect that the cuts are having on the criminal bar, pointing out that the ‘effective and mutually beneficial’ relationship enjoyed between the CPS and barristers is founded to a large extent on the work done by barristers’ clerks funded by the diminishing receipts from members of chambers.
Chawla also said that the cuts would cause the brightest and best to quit the criminal bar with the effect that trials become longer, unmanageable and more costly.
‘Equally troubling, however, is that the quality of criminal justice in the short term will diminish so that more guilty defendants will walk free while more innocent defendants will be convicted. That must surely be as objectionable to the CPS as it is to any right-thinking individual,’ he said.