The Criminal Bar Association is asking practitioners if they would be prepared to escalate action if the government fails to commit by Valentine's Day to increasing legal aid funding.

An independent criminal legal aid review, led by Sir Christopher Bellamy, found that an extra £135m a year was needed to nurse the criminal legal aid system back to health following 'years of neglect'. Lord chancellor Dominic Raab promised to respond to the review by the end of March.

However, in his latest weekly update, CBA chair Jo Sidhu QC said he made it clear at a meeting with justice ministers last month that it would be ‘utterly unacceptable’ for practitioners to wait 15 weeks to hear the government’s verdict, 'not least because the ensuing statutory consultation means that we might not know the final outcome of this long and tortuous process until the summer'.

Today, the CBA began surveying criminal barristers for their verdict on the review’s recommendations and government timetable.

Practitioners are asked four key questions:

  • Is it unreasonable for the government to delay publication of its full response until the end of March?
  • If the government fails to undertake by 14 February to publish its full response to the review, including a timetable for implementation and complete the statutory consultation, by no later than the end of March, should criminal barristers take action including, as a minimum, no returns?
  • Is a £35m remuneration increase under the advocates graduated fee scheme (AGFS) sufficient for the criminal bar’s long-term viability; and
  • If the government is not prepared to commit to substantially increasing additional funding for the AGFS, should criminal barristers take action to include, as a minimum, no returns?

Jo Sidhu QC, Chair of the Criminal Bar Association

Sidhu: ‘Utterly unacceptable’ for practitioners to wait 15 weeks to hear government’s verdict

Sidhu said: ‘As chair of the CBA, it is only right that I share with you my own perspective on whether the sums recommended in the [review] are sufficient to abate the unprecedented crisis that continues to envelope the criminal justice system and our profession. My position should be abundantly clear - without a swift and fair resolution of our pay we must never relinquish our right to take action. It is a personal view and one that has never wavered. But it is your opinion that counts.

‘We are a democratic association that represents the views of the criminal bar and we will reflect your collective judgment in the decisions that we take. That is why we promised to carry out a survey this month to hear your direct response to the proposed changes presented in the independent review. Should the survey indicate support for action, then a ballot will follow on the timetable and the specific action to be pursued.’

The survey will be open for seven days. Should the CBA end up balloting members on action, it could take around six weeks for chambers to get ready for 'no returns' - so any action would likely not begin until easter at the earliest.

Justice minister James Cartlidge confirmed in a written parliamentary response last week that his department aims to publish the government’s response to the review by the end of March.

Separately, a Twitter poll set up by criminal silk Edward Henry QC exploring appetite for a new ‘Criminal Practitioner Association’ - which would potentially provide a 'hard stick' in government negotiations - closes tomorrow.