A leading barrister last night claimed crippling cuts had plunged the justice system into a “state of crisis” as strike action threatened to bring the region’s courts to a halt.
Professionals across the North East will today stage a walk-out in protest at Justice Secretary Chris Grayling’s plans to cut fees for barristers and solicitors in a bid to shave £220m from the legal aid budget over the next five years.
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) says it is vital to scale back the “most expensive” legal aid scheme in the world and insisted it will remain “very generous” even after the changes.
But around 400 legal protesters in London will today march on the MoJ to deliver a signed Magna Carta scroll defending the right of every citizen to justice. Barristers refused to attend court for the first time in January, causing widespread disruption to criminal justice.
The Criminal Bar Association and London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association (LCCSA) claim fee cuts are financially unnecessary, will cause significant damage to the criminal justice system, and drive skilled and experienced lawyers away from publicly-funded criminal work.
And it’s claimed many junior barristers face rates as low as £20 a day, once the hours of preparation, time in court and chambers’ fees are factored in. They also receive no holiday pay, no pension provision and no sickness or maternity benefits.
John Elvidge QC, the leader of the North Eastern Circuit, said: “What has provoked this is the failure of the Government to listen to the thousands of responses that it’s had in a consultation process that’s been going on for over a year.
“It’s probably no exaggeration to say the justice system is in a state of crisis with the Government failing to ensure everyone has access to the legal system on on level terms on account of successive cuts in legal aid in family, civil and criminal cases. Further cuts on cuts will affect the ability of barristers and solicitors in local areas to deliver a proper level of service to the public.
“We have been waiting for them to explain the economic necessity for these cuts, bearing in mind the cost of criminal legal aid fell by £125m between 2011/12 and 2012/13.
“By stealth the Government is creating a two-tier justice system in which the rich can afford to pay for quality advice and assistance.”
Lewis Pearson, who acted as a local Law Society representative at a steering group earlier this year, said there had been an “erosion of the legal system” during his 30-year career in the North East. He said the way the North East magistrates’ court system has been stripped-back and redefined meant many defendants could struggle to make court appearances.
The solicitor said: “The cuts will hinder people’s access to justice - it’s death by a thousands cuts. We are one of the most rural areas in the country with great distances between Newcastle and Berwick.
“Under the new proposals if a household earns more than £37,500 then they are not eligible for legal aid.
“That would bring in a lot of families who earn a reasonably modest income, like teachers, young professionals and police men. Many would find themselves denied justice at the crown court. It’s important to emphasise that access to justice that we’ve enjoyed for such a long period of time is not going to be available to everyone under these new proposals.”
A MoJ spokesperson said: “At around £2bn a year, we have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world.
“As everybody knows, this Government is dealing with an unprecedented financial challenge and the MoJ has no choice but to significantly reduce the amount of money it spends every year. Our final plans reflect many of the changes [barristers and solicitors] asked for.”