07:07, March 29 265 0 theguardian.com

2018-03-29 07:07:15
Barristers vote to walk out in protest at government cuts

Criminal barristers in England and Wales have voted to stage mass walkouts and refuse new publicly funded cases in protest at sustained government cuts to the justice system.

In a poll organised by the Criminal Bar Association (CBA), 90% of its members backed action from 1 April. They are likely to be supported by solicitors working in the criminal courts and possibly other court staff.

The protest has been triggered by a revised advocates’ graduated fee scheme (AGFS), which barristers claim represents a further cut to their income, but that dispute is only the final straw.

Angela Rafferty QC, chair of the CBA, said: “The [criminal justice] system is desperate, as are we. We are informing our members today that they should consider not taking any work from April 1, the implementation date of the reforms.

“We will hold days of action. We will fight to improve the justice system for us and everyone else. We announce this action today with heavy hearts.”

The CBA has 4,000 members, not all professionally active. There were 2,317 votes cast, of which 2,081 were in favour of action. The organisation is planning days of mass walkouts when lawyers boycott the courts.

The decision to refuse new work will not affect cases that are already under way. Several prominent London barristers’ chambers, including Doughty Street, 25 Bedford Row and Garden Court Chambers, have already announced their support for action.

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has suffered the deepest cuts of any Whitehall department since 2010 and shut 258 courts across England and Wales; eight more are under consideration for closure.

The collapse of a series of rape cases because of failures to disclose key information has highlighted the pressures on the criminal justice system. Lawyers say they are not being paid for reading and assessing the massive amount of digitally generated material that is now routinely part of many cases.

Rafferty added: “The lack of funding in the criminal justice system has resulted in near-collapse. You cannot have a national asset and treat it like this.

“The public accounts committee (PAC) in 2016 said the criminal justice system was at breaking point. In my view it is now broken. Now we have to fix it.

“The crisis in the criminal justice system has become so well-known that it is in danger of being seen as unchangeable. The relentless cuts and refusal to recognise the importance of a principled, and not political, approach has left us all reeling. We must vociferously lead the campaign to stop this downward spiral.”

In 2016, the PAC reported that there had been a 26% cut in spending on the criminal justice system over the five years since 2010-11. Further cuts of £600m to MoJ funding were announced by the Treasury in November 2017 – amounting to a 9% reduction of its budget to £6bn by 2019-20.

“Meanwhile the poor and vulnerable in society are being denied access to justice,” Rafferty said. “Cases are less well investigated by the police and less well prepared by the CPS.

“For years the criminal justice system has been held together by the professionalism and goodwill of judges, court staff and lawyers, but the supply of sticking plaster has run out.”

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 they will reduce payments by 5-6% for crown court trials.