THOUSANDS of lawyers have staged an unprecedented walk-out at courts Yorkshire over legal aid cuts.
Barristers have chosen not to attend proceedings at courts in cities including Leeds and Hull. Across the country, London, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Newcastle, Winchester, Bristol and Cardiff are also hit.
Criminal Bar Association chair Nigel Lithman said the “strike” had the backing of almost every chambers and accused Justice Secretary Chris Grayling of “manipulating” official figures to falsely portray lawyers doing criminal aid work as high-earning “fat cats”.
The Government plans to cut fees as part of a bid to slash £220 million from the legal aid budget by 2018/19 - reducing them by as much as 30% in the longest and most complex cases.
The nationwide protest is the first in the history of the criminal bar.
Outside London’s historic Old Bailey, around 200 legal representatives huddled together in a show of solidarity.
A small number of armed police and a riot van were present as the Old Bailey - normally one of the busiest crown courts in England - was left operating at a fraction of its usual capacity.
The Ministry of Justice said it was vital to scale back the most expensive legal aid scheme in the world and insisted it will remain “very generous” even after the changes.
The department highlighted figures showing that 1,200 barristers judged to be working full-time on taxpayer-funded criminal work received £100,000 each in fee income last year. Six barristers picked up more than £500,000 each, it said.
But Mr Lithman, whose own case was moved to the afternoon, said the same official statistics showed that - after allowing for VAT and other expenses - the average barrister involved in the work earned around £36,000.
The Bar Council calculated that it was lower still - around the £27,000 national average, he said, meaning the cuts would push people away from the vital work.
“There are simply going to be no people of any ability prepared to do criminal legal aid work,” Mr Lithman said.
In a dig at the release of the earnings figures, he said he had been contacted by one barrister who was earning £13,680 in her second year of practice.
“You can put out the earnings of five to 10 people, but you can’t run the justice system on the efforts of five to 10 people,” he said.
The Bar Standards Board has warned that any barristers who stay away from court will almost certainly be in breach of their professional code of conduct with “very serious consequences”.
It urged the CBA to call off the action which it said could harm the interests of clients, others involved in a case and public confidence in the administration of justice.
But Mr Lithman said it would be “invidious” if any lawyers were punished, given the widespread strength of feeling and the efforts made to minimise disruption.
The reforms also include limits on prisoners’ access to legal aid, a household disposable income threshold for criminal legal aid and reductions in the cost of fees for representation.
Former director of public prosecutions Lord Macdonald joined the condemnation of the cuts and accused Mr Grayling of “destroying something he doesn’t really understand”.
The Liberal Democrat peer said two MoJ ministers - Lib Dem Simon Hughes and Tory Lord Faulks - had expressed concerns and should have a “serious conversation” with Mr Garyling.
“These are people who are working extremely hard for low incomes and 30% cuts on top of that, in circumstances where the legal aid budget was underspent by £56 million last year, seems unreasonable,” he said.
“I fear that Mr Grayling is in danger of destroying something that he doesn’t fully understand, which is a criminal justice system which is as good as any in the world, which is fair and which supports people who don’t have money as well as people who do.”
Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said: “No-one wants to see disruption in our courts but this unprecedented action shows how relations between the legal profession and David Cameron’s Government have collapsed as a result of policies which could restrict access to our courts to only those who can afford it.
“The Lord Chancellor swears an oath to uphold the law of the land, so for Chris Grayling to have lost the confidence of the legal community he relies on to deliver on this oath is extremely worrying.”
An MoJ spokesman said: “We entirely agree lawyers should be paid fairly for their work, and believe our proposals do just that.
“We also agree legal aid is a vital part of our justice system - that’s why we have to find efficiencies to ensure it remains sustainable and available to those most in need of a lawyer.
“Agencies involved in the criminal justice system will take steps to minimise any upset court disruption could cause for victims and witnesses involved in trials.”