On Friday 7th March many members of the criminal bar did not attend court, this was not a decision taken lightly, but one designed to highlight the concern that barristers and solicitors have about the proposed new defence fees.

The Government, after months of consultation has announced cuts to fees in the region of 17.5% for solicitors and, on average, 6% for barristers. One cannot view these figures as stand alone cuts though; they must be taken in context with the fact that since 2007 there has been no increase in fees. This means in real terms fees have decreased over 20%- before the imposition of these further cuts.

Most solicitors firms operate on a profit margin of 5-6%, these cuts mean that redundancies are inevitable, fewer solicitors will have to try and deal with more cases, salaries will be reduced, experienced practitioners will look elsewhere for work leading to inexperienced solicitors dealing with ever more complicated cases.

As for the Bar it means yet further cuts in pay. The average pay for a criminal barrister is £37,000, hardly fat cat wages. Many at the junior end are struggling to make a living, further cuts will mean more talented people leaving the bar, simply unable to make ends meet on the proposed fees.

Barristers generally both defend and prosecute, however before one can prosecute one must show sufficient experience. If a junior barrister cannot earn a living defending they will not gain the experience required to prosecute. Where will the future senior barristers come from? Who will have the experience to prosecute the murders and rapes? These cuts will have long term, devastating effects.

The Government states it wants to increase diversity at the Bar yet by cutting fees it will not allow those with thousands of pounds worth of debt to forge a career at the bar as they simply wont be able to afford to start out. This means only those of independent means will be able to practise in criminal law – hardly an encouragement of diversity.

Barristers operate on a system of returns whereby if another barrister’s trial over runs and they have cases that need covering other barristers will cover them. This system ensures the smooth running of the courts, it requires a great deal of goodwill and often entails barristers working late into the night preparing briefs at late notice.

As of Monday 10th March many barrister have decided that they will no longer cover returns, this means that if they are not available to cover their own work the client may end up unrepresented. This action is being taken to demonstrate how much last minute work barristers do, and how goodwill is essential to keep the court system going. It is intended that the courts will be thrown into chaos. The purpose is to draw attention to the cuts, to demonstrate that barristers do a difficult job, in challenging circumstances, that they work hard and try to give their clients the best service possible. The proposed cuts will jeopardise all of that. For once the bar is being proactive, telling the Government that they simply wont cope without us, and if they don’t stop these cuts now the world famous English legal system is in dire risk of vanishing forever. 

Written by Michelle Heeley.