A leading North East barrister launched a scathing attack on Justice Secretary Chris Grayling’s legal aid cuts and accused ministers of “misleading the public” over the level of pay to legal professionals.
Barristers from across the region staged a half-day walkout yesterday for the first time in history following Government plans to save £220m a year from the legal aid budget by 2018-19.
Mr Grayling claims the reform could lead to a saving of up to a third in long complex trials.
But last night John Elvidge QC, leader of the North Eastern Circuit, accused ministers of drawing up “cynical policies” which “consistently misled the public about the true level of turnover for self employed barristers practising criminal law”.
In an interview with The Journal, Mr Elvidge, who is also head of Dere Street Barristers, said repeated cuts were forcing experienced barristers from the profession and putting justice in jeopardy.
He said: “The Government’s fiscal policies have caused, and continue to cause, experienced barristers with years of experience of acting for the prosecution and on behalf of defendants to abandon criminal practice.
“They have also inhibited the recruitment and retention of new talent. If the current legal aid proposals are implemented the inevitable loss of quality advocates will increase the likelihood of miscarriages of justice occurring; of criminals escaping punishment and innocent men, women and children being convicted.
“In those cases, access to justice will have been denied and the pain suffered by the victims of injustice, and their families, will be a source of shame to our legal system.”
According to the Ministry of Justice, England and Wales has one of the most expensive legal systems in the world.
Ministers claim 1,200 barristers working full time on publicly-funded legal aid cases earned £100,000 each last year with six others picking up more than £500,000 each.
But Mr Elvidge last night said wages earned by some of the region’s most senior barristers was as low as £15,000 after expenses. He described the criminal bar as the “Cinderella” of the legal profession and said it was the “poor relation” of commercial law.
Dismissing the label of barristers as “fat cats”, he said: “It isn’t just newly qualified barristers, some senior professionals are earning low levels of income.
“The reality is that the fees that are actually received before income tax is paid are close to half of what the Government claims after payment of VAT, staff, office, insurance, library and travel costs.
“Barristers are deciding to stop doing criminal work and there are difficulties in recruiting new barristers. There will be a lack of skilled advocates to present cases to the standard that the public expects and deserves.
“What this really is about is the sustainability of the criminal bar. Very experienced advocates can present serious cases and if that is undermined then it will inevitably lead to people being convicted when they are innocent, people being released when they are guilty and all the misery that comes with it.”
A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman claimed the UK had the most expensive legal system in the world and said it would not suffer as a result of any cuts.
In a statement released to The Journal she said: “At around £2bn a year we have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world, and it would remain very generous even after reform.” She added: “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.”