report by Mikhil Karnik and David Renton, photo of Crown Square in Manchester by Mikhil Karnik
Solicitors and barristers withdrew from courts today across Britain in protest against proposed changes to criminal legal aid. This is the first time that lawyers have taken such coordinated action nationally. More protests are planned unless the government backs down.
There were crowds of 150-200 lawyers plus supporters at each of Manchester Crown Court, Westminster Magistrates’ Court and Southwark Crown Court, as well as smaller protests at 20 other courts across the country.
Some 15 out of 16 cases at the Old Bailey were disrupted today. The sole hearing that went ahead involved a jury already in the midst of deliberations addressed by a judge in an otherwise empty courtroom.
The government is proposing cuts to the fees which solicitors and barristers can charge for representing clients. This involves 18% cuts to fees for criminal legal aid cases, rising 30% for the lengthiest cases. Legal aid will also be removed for prison law and from cases brought by people who have not lived in the UK for at least 12 months.
There are further plans to significantly reduce legal aid for judicial reviews. This change will have a particular impact on the willingness of lawyers to take on cases such as challenging the closure of local services.
The reality of lawyers’ lives is that almost every aspect of the court service is being run down in front of our eyes. We have already seen the closure of court desks that let members of the public file documents. Many county courts are now open only in mornings, and many local magistrates’ courts have been shut down altogether.
Reduced fees have been introduced for expert witnesses and for civil barristers (whose fees have been cut by around a half in the last year alone). Legal aid has been cut back in areas including welfare benefits, family and employment law.