“What on earth is happening to your justice system?”

The year 2014 marks the first Barrister’s strike since the Bar’s initiation in 1466. As part of Justice Alliance UK, barristers refused to enter the Old Bailey doors to campaign against the horrific cuts to Legal Aid, a product of irrational decisions by the Justice Secretary that are sure to leave the criminal justice system in disarray.

Sarah Forshaw, QC and Head of the South Circuit, and Matt Foot, co-founder of Justice Alliance and a criminal defence solicitor at Birnberg Peirce and Partners, have both been heavily involved in the campaign against Legal Aid cuts. Bringing Michaelmas term’s All Souls Seminar Series to a dignified close, both painted a dismal but passionate picture of the events that have unfolded in this time of austerity and the gruelling path that lies ahead for the legal profession.

Anti-Cuts Protest in Gloucester. Credit: quisnovus via flickr
In 2006, Lord Carter fixed the fees payable for advocacy at what the Government saw as “reasonable”. In seven years thereafter, lawyers’ fees faced a 30% reduction. Despite tens of thousands of angry responses to consultation papers in 2013 warning that price-competitive tendering would wipe out the bar, the proposal was implemented, drastically reducing the availability and quality of Legal Aid. Entire classes of legal cases are now no longer allowed access, and as a result the most vulnerable populations in society can no longer receive what is arguably a fundamental human right. Women victims of domestic violence are unable to access legal aid due to the restrictions in tribunals. In prison, inmates are longer allowed to use legal aid for prison complaints. The introduction of price competitive tendering has forced smaller firms to surrender legal aid work against the tendering power of larger commercial businesses. Only the larger firms make a profit; the smaller and the self-employed must now either get through the work as quickly and cheaply as possible, or simply shut up shop. Quality advocates would be forced to leave the criminal justice system as it becomes more and more unsustainable.
 
Legal Aid is vital to allow fair legal representation for all, regardless of class. Those caught within the criminal justice system may not even be “criminals”; Legal Aid has helped the wrongfully convicted escape the clutches of corruption, exaggeration, falsification. None of the injustice in cases like Stephen Lawrence or Andrew Mitchell would have come to light had the Legal Aid cuts been implemented at the time. How is denying this in line with the rule of law?
 
Unfortunately, despite the efforts of Justice Alliance, the campaign against legal aid cuts has fallen subject to gross misrepresentation. Lawyers are labelled as “fat cats” campaigning for additions to their supposedly already high wages. Press releases show a misguided “representation” of barristers wages, taking the scarce top figures, before expenses, showing them as “average earnings”.
 
The true position is in fact this. 60% of the criminal bar now make less than 30,000 pounds per year. Juniors are lucky to make 10,000 pounds. This not only impacts the personal situation of the individual but affects the entire system; defendants remain in custody as legal aid access diminishes, trials are delayed due to cost cutting, experienced lawyers are forced out of jobs and quality defence lawyers become harder and harder to find.
 
Magna Carta/Fight for Legal Aid, Westminster. Credit: Chris Beckett via flickr
This presentation confronted us all with a grave reality that should be public knowledge. Public awareness is the key to change, and the real story must be told. This is not just about barristers wages; this is about justice, in all sense of the word. The rule of law and the criminal justice system is under threat, and the right to fair legal representation is fundamental. Nobody expects they will need Legal Aid but it may be too late once they do. Supporting the Justice Alliance petition can help to save the integrity of the criminal justice system, and the lives of many. It might even save yours.