‘Historic’ or ‘pointless’? Mixed views on criminal legal aid protest

i-6V4hJfH-LAs reported on LegalVoice, thousands of criminal solicitors and barristers in England and Wales staged a half-day walkout on Monday in protest at government plans to further cut fees for legal aid work.  The unprecedented event generated extensive press coverage across the country, with reaction to the protest proving fairly mixed.

The Daily Mail was characteristically damning in its report of the protest, referring to the gathering of barristers outside the Old Bailey as ‘the most privileged picket line ever’.  The tabloid centred in particular on a ‘lady barrister’ in the front row who was carrying a Mulberry handbag, reportedly worth £1,100.

Setting out the earnings of some junior barristers at ‘as little as £13,000 a year’, the Mail added: ‘But perhaps it was a mistake for one protestor to have her exclusive Mulberry Bayswater hanging on show.’

The Mail’s focus on the opulent handbag caused a furore on Twitter, with barrister Faraz Shibli tweeting:

‘I hear Mail Online doorstepped barrister with Mulberry bag and were told it was a gift from her mum for caring for her terminally ill dad, yet no mention in their article. Why let truth get in the way of a good story?’

Another criminal barrister felt the need to write a blog defending the barrister’s decision to carry the expensive handbag to the protest, arguing that the Mail’s focus on the bag was a ‘thing of lame journalism’ and a ‘cheap point’.

An eloquent dispute
The Independent  reported that the half day of action ‘was probably the most well-argued and eloquent dispute in English labour history’ and compared the day of action to the miners’ strike of the 1980s:

‘All strikes have hate figures.  For the miners in 1984 it was Margaret Thatcher. For today’s barristers, the proposed cuts to legal aid fees ordered by the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, have become the equivalent of pit closures.’

The Telegraph, however, looked unfavourably on the protest, focusing its coverage on the one million pounds which ‘may have been wasted at crown courts’ across Britain as a result of lawyers’ non-attendance.

‘The walkout meant thousands of criminal cases due to be heard on Monday morning had to be rescheduled, at a cost of hundreds of thousands to the taxpayer,’ said the paper.

International attention
News of the unprecedented walk-out even travelled across the Atlantic with The Washington Post reporting that ‘hundreds of British lawyers – many dressed in traditional white curled wigs and black gowns – swapped courtrooms for picket lines on Monday to protest planned cuts to legal aid.’

Meanwhile, a British teacher now living in Norway criticised BBC news’ coverage of the action, as he questioned whether the channel’s ‘regurgitation of obviously disingenuous government statistics on the criminal barristers strike’ were ‘shambolic’ or merely ‘servantile’.

Posh people in wigs
The protest had an unlikely supporter in the form of the prime minister’s elder brother, Alex Cameron.  The Daily Mail reported that the criminal silk – reputedly among the highest-earning barristers in the country – ‘lent his backing to a legal aid strike designed to undermine government reforms’.

Read on, however, and you learn that in fact Cameron’s chambers, Three Raymond Buildings, supported the day of action, whilst the PM’s brother had never actually put forward his personal position on the ‘strike’.

The senior partner of the biggest criminal legal aid firm in the country, meanwhile, slammed the protest as ‘a waste of time and possibly counter-productive’.

No stranger to controversy, Franklin Sinclair said that staff at his firm, Tuckers, did not take part in the half-day of action, despite being given the choice to do so.  ‘I don’t think the best way to get public sympathy is having a lot of fairly posh people with wigs standing in front of courts,’ said Sinclair. ‘They’re not the people who get up at three in the morning to deal with drunk or mentally ill people at police stations.’

The inevitable social media backlash followed, with criminal barrister Dan Bunting tweeting to Sinclair: ‘You seem to be stuck 30 years ago when barristers are posh and don’t go to the police station? Neither true nowadays.’

Sinclair responded with a quip about the £1,100 handbag fiasco: ‘Some have changed I grant you but not many solicitors have hermes bags worth a grand…..your average joe public has no sympathy or empathy so the protest is pretty pointless.’

Thanks to Tom Elkins for the pic.

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