Barristers should consider ‘the ultimate weapon’ and threaten strike action over legal aid cuts and delays to their payments, argued the chairman of the Criminal Bar Association last week. A new survey of over 1,600 CBA members found almost nine out of 10 respondents (89%) were willing to take direct action. Speaking at the group’s annual dinner, its chair Max Hill QC said barristers should consider deploying the ‘ultimate weapon of stopping the courts’.
Worrying about the mortgage
In a blistering speech, Max Hill declared: ‘Rumpole is dead. We may be his successors, but we spend our days worrying about paying the mortgage; worrying about how we can ever afford a pension.’
Max Hill, of the specialist criminal law chambers 18 Red Lion Court, began by quoting one of the respondents to the CBA survey who was so disillusioned that he was thinking quitting the Bar. (‘I am not sure how much longer I can continue to practise in criminal law… the more that those who work in this field are hit by cuts in fees and uncertainty of work, the heavier the costs and the more likely they are to outweigh the benefits…’).
Hill said his words caught ‘the dilemma for the criminal barrister in 2012’ which was being ‘torn between a love for this great job, this service we perform in the public interest, and the steady erosion of the certainty we all thought our education, training and dedication would provide’. The silk attacked ‘a financially bankrupt government’ for driving through the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act 2012. The legislation would ‘leave many with no recourse to the law when things go badly wrong’ and ‘sacrificed on the altar of cost’ necessary litigation. ‘Time and again we find politicians responding to our reasoned arguments in the same way: “We recognise justice is on your side, but we can’t afford to pay for the legal services in this country any longer.”’
Cheap side of the street
The barrister attacked ‘our political masters who made their money on the sunny slopes of the privately-funded commercial Bar’ but who were ‘no allies or friends of ours on the cheap side of the street’. ‘But I did not know that there would be such heartache, depression and personal bankruptcy caused by the wanton failure of central Government to shore up the Legal Services Commission in such a way that they might pay us in reasonable time for concluded cases,’ he continued. He also claimed to be surprised by the number of barristers contacting him who ‘couldn’t pay their tax in January, because the earnings-basis assessment for tax produced a payable sum which exceeded last years profit, and which far outweighed the actual payments received in the current year, because the LSC was keeping them waiting month after month’.
‘So let us fight, and let us remember the option to strike,’ Hill said. He called on barristers to ‘use the momentum of the past year’ and reminded them that the criminal Bar suffered cuts by stagnation for 15 years before the Spending Review. ‘Demand better treatment,’ he said. ‘No more cuts, I say, either for the defence or the prosecution.’
‘So let us fight, and let us remember the option to strike.’
The CBA survey was completed by some 1638 of the group’s almost 4,000-strong membership. It found:
- 82% suffered delayed payment (more than nine weeks for payment in completed graduated fee cases);
- 87% would not agree to a Quality Assurance scheme (in which Plea Only Advocates were a permitted grade);
- 93% would not agree to a scheme without a unified code of conduct to regulate all advocates;
- 92% disagreed with the introduction of One Case One Fee on the basis that the advocacy fee is not ring-fenced;
- 89% did not consider the current level of fees proper and fair remuneration;
- 88% of defence advocates were prepared to refuse to accept new instructions; and
- 89% are prepared to take direct lawful action.
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