08:05, March 26 269 0 theguardian.com

2018-03-26 08:05:11
Barristers threaten walkout over legal aid payment changes

Criminal courts across England and Wales are facing disruption after barristers threatened direct action in protest at a new legal aid payments scheme.

Angela Rafferty QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA), said her 4,000 members were at breaking point due to extra responsibilities being imposed over disclosure of evidence.

The collapse of a series of rape trials has highlighted growing problems over of the volume of documents in criminal cases generated by mobile phones and digital technology.

A protest meeting is being held at the Law Society on Monday evening with the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association and the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association to coordinate action over cuts to legal aid, the burdens of disclosure and racial inequality in the justice system.

In a statement published on the CBA’s website, Rafferty said the results of a ballot for direct action would be published later this week. “The signs are that there will be overwhelming support for unified action. We expect the membership to reject the levels of funding offered in the new scheme.

“...The last thing we want to do is not to work or to take action. We feel strong commitment to the rule of law and our place in it. However, everything is at breaking point at once, including us.”

The barristers’ immediate objection is to changes to the Advocates’ Graduated Fee Scheme (AGFS), which barristers claim represents a further cut to their income.

Rafferty added: “The levels of remuneration are unacceptable for many kinds of complex, important cases. There is no payment at all for disclosure or the vast quantities of evidence likely to be served on us in cases going forward.”

Solicitors and barristers last took direct action against cuts to legal aid in 2014 and 2015, boycotting some hearings.

Resentment among legal professionals has resurfaced as the Ministry of Justice’s budget has been progressively squeezed. The department has suffered the deepest cuts of any Whitehall department since 2010 and closed more than 220 courts across England and Wales.

No decision has yet been taken on what form the protests will take if the ballot supports action. In the past lawyers have adopted a policy of “no returns” – refusing to cover hearings when other barristers cannot appear. Others have suggested refusing to accept work under the new AGFS payment scheme.

Some barristers’ chambers have already announced action. Garden Court Chambers in London has declared that: “In order to protect and preserve our criminal justice system, [we] will not be undertaking any publicly funded criminal work with legal aid certificates dated from 1 April 2018 and will be operating a ‘no returns’ policy. We call on all our colleagues at the criminal bar to join us.”

The Law Society is already fighting legal action over cuts to fees paid to defence solicitors for reading criminal evidence, warning that the changes will lead to more miscarriages of justice. The body, which represents solicitors in England and Wales, estimates it will reduce payments by 5% to 6% for crown court trials.