The vote took place at Saturday’s Criminal Bar Association (CBA) national delegates’ conference at Lincoln’s Inn in London, where barristers from each of the six circuits turned out to make a stand against the government’s reform proposals for legal aid, including the proposal to cut defence barristers’ fees in criminal legal aid cases by a further 17.5%.
Delivering a rousing speech, Mark George QC received the day’s only standing ovation after calling for ‘a day or days of action on which no members of the criminal bar will undertake work in either the magistrates or crown courts’, in order to ‘demand that the government stays all its current proposals for legal aid and that the justice secretary engages with us meaningfully’.
‘I call it a strike,’ said George. ‘Others of a more delicate disposition may not want to call it that. We can call it the teddy bears’ picnic for all I care, but we must do it.’ He continued:
‘I appreciate for some of you, this may sound radical. It is radical. We are in a radical situation. It’s time to fix the bayonets because we are not going to go down without a fight.’
Telling the conference that ‘the public needs us – to prosecute the guilty and to defend the innocent’, the criminal silk concluded to rapturous applause: ‘We owe it to ourselves; we owe it to our clients – victims or accused, and we owe it to the junior Bar.’
The resolution calling for a withdrawal of the criminal Bar’s labour on a ‘day or days of action’ was passed unanimously. The resolution had been proposed jointly by George, who is head of chambers at Garden Court North, and Russell Fraser, a junior criminal barrister who practises in London.
Referring to the cuts to social welfare law already implemented by LASPO, as well as the government’s proposals to introduce a residence test for civil legal aid and to drastically limit legal aid for prison law and judicial review, Fraser reminded attendees that ‘any day of action ought to be in the name of all the legal aid cuts – not just these cuts.’ He continued: ‘They did it in Manchester and they survived. Let’s call it today; let’s build it properly, and let’s make it a success.’
Whilst a number of barristers at the conference urged the CBA executive to set a date for a strike, chairman Nigel Lithman QC urged ‘caution’ from delegates, and pressed the need for ‘an incremental approach’.
Lithman said that the CBA would give the government ‘a short period’ to back down from its current proposals before a day of action is called.
Lithman concluded: ‘I assure you that there is no shortage of resilience and resolve from any of us.’
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