"Crime doesn't pay, for either of us."
The Ministry of Justice is boosting legal aid funding with an extra £135 million a year. However, the Criminal Bar Association has slammed the 'insufficient' rise, and its members have voted in favour of refusing 'returns work' over complaints of poor pay.
The MoJ said it would spend an extra £135 million on legal aid per year, in line with a recent report by retired judge Sir Christopher Bellamy QC, who recommended a 15% increase in criminal legal aid fees.
“I welcome the Government’s promise to inject urgently needed money into the legal aid system," said Mark Fenhalls QC, Chair of the Bar Council. "We will work with the Ministry of Justice to make sure the funds are delivered swiftly, effectively and fairly."
However, the Criminal Bar Association has said the injection is not enough. Last Sunday, CBA members voted by an overwhelming majority of 94% in favour of refusing to accept returns work* from 11th April, unless the government agrees to a further set of measures. The CBA's demands include the setting up of a pay review body, and the government increasing remuneration by 25% (not 15%) under the Advocates' Graduated Fee Scheme (AGFS)**.
A spokesman for the CBA 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". Criminal barristers may wish to look away when pay rises are being announced in other areas of the profession.
“The CBA members have made it absolutely clear that without a substantial increase in criminal legal aid fees, the alarming exodus of prosecutors and defenders from criminal work will continue if not accelerate," said Jo Sidhu QC, Chair of the Criminal Bar Association. "Our members have already made it clear that the suggested increase in fees by Sir Christopher Bellamy will not be sufficient to retain enough criminal barristers to keep the wheels of justice turning and that means victims will be failed.”
A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said the department was “disappointed in a vote for this course of action" just days before it had announced "plans to create a stable and sustainable legal aid sector for the future."
“We encourage CBA members to read our proposals in full and respond to the consultation, rather than being drawn into action that will harm defendants and victims of crime,” said the spokeswoman.
The courts are struggling with a backlog of almost 60,000 cases, partly due to the lockdowns throughout the pandemic. Jo Sidhu QC chair, and Kirsty Brimelow QC, vice chair of the Criminal Bar Association said: “We have already lost too many of our colleagues who can no longer afford to maintain their commitment to criminal work and who have left our ranks out of desperation and despair. Every day we are losing more. We have shrunk to a mere 2,400 full time criminal barristers.”
The Lord Chancellor Dominic Raab failed to ingratiate himself with the CBA last year, and the relationship doesn't seem to have improved much since then.
* Return work refers to those cases that are returned from the original criminal barrister, and taken on by another barrister. There is no professional obligation for the barrister to accept such work, but they do so as a gesture of goodwill to prop up the criminal justice system.
** 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.