Many criminal barristers will not be taking on new legal aid cases from this week. The action comes after the introduction of a new fee regime from 1 April, which the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) believes will lead to a fall in barristers’ incomes and increase the risk of miscarriages of justice.
Last Thursday (29 March), the CBA announced
the results of a survey of its members in which 90 per cent voted to take action to secure more cash for the criminal justice system. The CBA believes the system is collapsing and stated that barristers’ fees ‘have been relentlessly cut for over 20 years by nearly 40 per cent’. It is calling on its members to refuse to take any new cases under representation orders.
The government argues that the new Advocates’ Graduated Fee Scheme (AGFS) is cost-neutral. Criminal law barristers disagree and say they will lose out under the new system. Doughty Street Chambers in London said in a statement on its website
that it has ‘calculated projected losses of up to 40 per cent of a barrister’s income in certain types of case’ compared with the previous fee regime.
At the heart of the dispute is the issue of payments for reviewing written evidence. The new AGFS payments pay a fixed fee rather than one based on the number of pages of evidence. An issue highlighted by the collapse of some recent rape trials is the need to review large amounts of prosecution evidence (see, for example, Owen Bowcott, ‘London rape trial collapses after phone images undermine case
, 15 January 2018).
In March 2014, barristers took action against fee cuts, including introducing a no returns policy. Returns are cases in which a barrister drops out at short notice and the case is passed on to another. The criminal justice system is dependent on barristers to represent in such cases at short notice. The no returns policy in 2014 led to a swift U-turn
by the government on a planned six per cent fee cut. In a statement on its website
, Garden Court Chambers in London said that while it is not implementing a no returns policy at present, it is calling on fellow barristers and the CBA to consider doing so.
The CBA and Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL) have begun crowdfunding
to send copies of the Secret Barrister
’s book, Stories of the law and how it’s broken
, and YLAL’s report, Social mobility in a time of austerity
(see YLAL's article on the report
), to every MP. The Secret Barrister will donate royalties from these copies to the Bar Pro Bono Unit, while the book's publisher, Pan Macmillan, will match this figure with a donation to be split between LawWorks and LAG.