The Ministry of Justice states that the United Kingdom has the most expensive legal system in the world (a fact which is disputed by The Justice Alliance UK). By 2018/2019 justice secretary Chris Grayling and the MoJ plan to reduce the legal aid budget by £220m through cutting fees by up to 30% in criminal cases and 20% in civil litigation – all in a bid to maintain sustainability. They vehemently deny these planned cuts will have a negative effect on the level of access to justice to those who seek to make use legal aid. This is an opinion most legal professionals disagree with, and it was shown come 10am on Monday 6th January 2014.
Legal professionals are usually a set of individuals who make their points through words, not actions. Monday saw the United Kingdom witness something rather peculiar– as words and actions switched places. For the first time in the history of the legal bar solicitors and barristers working on publicly funded cases withdrew the services of their labour for half a day – all in an attempt to force justice secretary, Chris Grayling, in to a rethink of his proposed £220m cuts to legal aid.
The walk-out was widespread. Seventeen of the eighteen courtrooms in the historic Old Bailey were to be found either locked or empty – with approximately 200 legal representatives gathered outside in protest. Courtrooms in Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Preston, Birmingham, Newcastle, Winchester, Bristol and Cardiff all followed suit. Reportedly thousands of cases due to be heard on Monday morning had to be re-scheduled.
Of course, such action instantaneously evokes images and thoughts of trade union strikes. This can inevitably lead one to feel a lack of empathy for the group taking action – as most strikes centre on the issue of money and wage disputes. The fact that the group in question consists entirely of solicitors and barristers does nothing to encourage against making such a judgement. Legal professionals are often portrayed as big money earners – an image which is not being helped by the Ministry of Justice.
The MoJ insist that the mean earnings of Barrister’s from criminal legal aid are approximately £50,000 in fees per annum. The reality, however, is very different. These figures fail to take in to account numerous deductions, such as chamber’s fees, travel expenses, and VAT. As such the actual taxable income of these professionals is closer to £32,000. In some instances it may even fall below £25,000 a year. Whilst one may still consider this a relatively good wage, the fact that many barristers are riddled with debts of roughly £60,000 to £80,000 before even securing a tenancy in chambers must be taken in to account.
The CBA believe that these planned cuts will lead to lower quality legal representation – which in turn will lead to lower conviction rates and an increase in miscarriages of justice – which, rather worryingly, is a sugar coated way of saying that the likelihood of the innocent being wrongly punished and the guilty walking free will rise. This feeling of concern over the severity of the cuts, and how it threatens to deny proper justice to those who need it most, is a sentiment echoed by senior judges and the Joint Committee on Human Rights. The latter of which feel the proposed cuts may have a detrimental effect on the legal rights of vulnerable groups.
Whether or not the proposed cuts to legal aid will alter the way in which it is utilised and operated within the United Kingdom is an opinion which will differ depending on who you ask. What is clear, however, is that the change will have a major effect; the transition period will be turbulent; and someone is going to be left feeling aggrieved by the legal system – whether it is the common man seeking justice or the legal representative seeking to uphold it.
Brace yourself. Change is coming.