An all-day protest by close to 400 barristers in the North West over what was called ‘a wholesale restructuring of the criminal courts’ caused disruption yesterday. It was reported that of the 241 cases originally listed, 15 trials and 42 other matters were adjourned.
A spokesman for the Northern Circuit, from Carlisle through Manchester and Liverpool to Chester, reported that ‘overwhelming majority’ of its members attended an all day meeting to discuss a response to the Transforming Legal Aid proposals and QASA. Meanwhile, an e-petition has been launched (Save UK Justice): ‘The MOJ should not proceed with their plans to reduce access to justice by depriving citizens of legal aid or the right to representation by the Solicitor of their choice.’ You can sign HERE.
‘The consultation forwards plans for a model of price competitive tendering. Bids will be invited below a fixed ceiling for batches of work around the country. It is a system in which only warehouse law firms will exist and high street firms will either die or be absorbed by large corporations intent on delivering legal services cheaply for maximum profit. The future will be one in which suspects are apprehended by G4S investigators, transported by G4S security, detained by G4S officers and imprisoned in G4S jails – at each stage represented by G4S lawyers.’
Russell Fraser, pupil barrister and joint secretary of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers in the New Statesman
According to a Press Association report most of the list at Burnley Crown was adjourned and hearings were also affected at Preston Crown Court ‘where a jury had to be sent home because no barristers in the case were present’. Barristers in the trial of police killer Dale Cregan at Preston Crown Court wanted to attend but ‘backed down on Friday after the judge said he was not prepared to adjourn proceedings’. Junior counsel had to step in for their senior colleagues in another murder trial at the court in order for it to proceed.
It was also reported that the presiding judge for the circuit, Mr Justice Holroyde, had explained that the meeting did not provide a ‘sufficiently good reason’ for court hearings not to proceed. Also the Ministry of Justice said it would be ‘disappointing” if lawyers chose to disrupt court schedules and added it ‘would not help them and simply inconveniences the court, the public and their clients’.
The Law Society, having said that the ‘unworkable’ proposals would lead to a ‘collapse’ of the criminal defence system, ‘urged solicitors to work’ with the consultation for now. ‘The Society does not rule out more serious action later on but, at this stage, we believe that it is in the interests of our members and of the criminal justice system to engage with the proposals and provide evidence and reasoned alternatives to government,’ Chancery Lane said.
In a statement from Rick Pratt QC, leader of the Northern Circuit of the Bar, following yesterday’s he said that ‘just short of 400 barristers’ attended. The Government proposals for QASA together with the Transforming Legal Aid consultation represented ‘a crisis for the criminal justice system of this country – a legal system which has been admired and emulated around the world.’ ‘What is proposed is nothing short of a wholesale restructuring of the criminal courts, shifting the emphasis from justice and the principle that it is for the state through the Crown Prosecution Service, to prove every case in the criminal court, to a new set of principles heavily influenced by cost,’ Pratt said. The barrister acknowledged that ‘we are in a time of austerity’ with sweeping public sector cuts.’But we have to maintain a civilised society and a criminal justice system that has at its heart a target to “deliver” more guilty pleas, starts from the wrong point. The consultation paper makes it clear that no other options have been considered. If savings are to be made, alternative ways to achieve significant savings, whilst maintaining the integrity of the system, must be explored.’
Pratt said it was ‘sadly inevitable’ that there would be ‘some disruption’. ‘That has not been the purpose of this meeting, nor has it been one of the intended consequences… The barristers and solicitors of the Northern Circuit will individually and collectively respond, as a result of the debate today to the consultation paper and will use every means at their disposal to fight these proposals for the sake of everyone who will be touched by the work of the criminal courts in the future. We will fight to maintain our system of justice.’
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