"Victims, defendants - if you could all form an orderly queue, a barrister should be available at some point this decade."
Dozens of barrister chambers have said they will refuse 'returns' work from this week onwards, in protest against the government's "insufficient" funding for legal aid.
Returns work refers to cases taken on by barristers which have been 'returned' from another barrister for various reasons, such as a diary clash or a case being rescheduled etc. There is no professional obligation for a barrister to accept such work, but they have traditionally done so as a gesture of goodwill to prop up the criminal justice system.
In March, the Ministry of Justice announced it was boosting legal aid funding with an extra £135 million a year. However, the Criminal Bar Association said the rise was not enough. At the time, a CBA spokesman told RollOnFriday that just £35m of the £135m boost from the MoJ was going towards the AGFS*, with £100m going to the LGFS**. According to calculations by the spokesman; after tax, expenses and various deductions, the pot to be divided amongst criminal barristers "comes to the equivalent of around just £100 a week in to the pocket on average per criminal barrister".
Last month, CBA members voted overwhelmingly in favour of refusing 'returns work' from 11 April unless the government agreed to measures including the setting up of a pay review body, and the government increasing remuneration by 25% (not the proposed 15% uplift) under the AGFS.
Jo Sidhu QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association, told RollOnFriday that the government has "manifestly failed to recognise the scale of the crisis and to act with the urgency required."
"Criminal barristers can no longer afford to wait and, with every passing week, increasing numbers are leaving our ranks to find alternative work that offers a viable career," said Sidhu. "Without sufficient prosecutors and defenders, thousands of victims and accused will continue to face years of delay and the backlog in cases will grow ever longer."
There is a backlog of nearly 60,000 Crown Court cases, and the CBA said that a quarter of barristers have left criminal practice in the last five years.
Law Society of England and Wales president I. Stephanie Boyce said: “We understand why barristers have chosen to take this action. After decades of underfunding and cuts, criminal law is no longer an attractive career option for young solicitors or barristers. Many of those who are currently practising in criminal law will be considering how long they are able to continue doing so."
Justice Minister James Cartlidge told RollOnFriday: “The Crown Court backlog is now falling thanks to our decisive action and the hard work of legal professionals and as a result of our reforms the typical criminal barrister will earn £5,000 extra per year."
Cartlidge added: “This is a generous pay rise and I encourage the Criminal Bar Association to work with me on this, rather than pursue unnecessary disruption in the courts which will only serve to delay justice for victims.”
* The AGFS is the Advocates' Graduated Fee Scheme: This is for barristers who provide legal aid representation on behalf of a client, ie counsel advocates.
** The LGFS is the Litigators' Graduated Fee Scheme: This applies to solicitors, ie litigators representing clients for crown court cases.