Courts throughout England and Wales fell silent on Jan. 6 as trial lawyers staged an unprecedented walkout in protest of planned cuts to legal aid that could see them work for just £20 ($33) per day.
More than 1,000 courts were affected as barristers took action designed to pressure the government into dropping proposals to slash £220 million ($360 million) from the U.K.’s annual £2 billion ($3.3 billion) legal aid budget, which funds legal advice for individuals unable to afford professional representation in criminal and some civil cases. (Barristers are specialist advocates who represent clients in court, typically operating independently from stand-alone “chambers” instead of law firms.)
In the first ever strike in the profession’s 600-year history, many barristers—still dressed in their traditional gray wigs and black gowns—took part in noisy demonstrations outside court buildings, holding placards bearing slogans such as “Save British Justice” and “No Legal Aid Cuts.”
The U.K.’s legal aid budget has already been reduced by 40 percent since 1997. Nigel Lithman QC, a barrister and chairman of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA), which helped organize the half-day protest, says that the latest cuts will drive barristers away from criminal trial work. A dearth of barristers with experience in criminal matters, he says, could ultimately harm prosecutions, too, since they are often handled by private barristers “instructed” by the government.
“[The cuts] would take the heart out of the criminal bar,” says Lithman. “The average barrister simply wouldn’t be able to afford to [practice criminal law].”
The U.K. Ministry of Justice has dismissed the campaign—which included a billboard urging the public to “keep paedophiles, rapists and murderers off our streets”—as “alarmist rubbish.”
“At around 2 billion pounds a year, we have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world and it would remain very generous even after reform,” the ministry said in a statement.
The government recently released data showing that 1,200 barristers working full-time on taxpayer-funded criminal work earned more than £100,000 ($165,000) last year, with six pocketing more than £500,000 ($820,000). But Lithman says that after tax and expenses, the average income of criminal barristers in the United Kingdom is just £36,000 ($60,000). The Bar Council, which represents barristers in England and Wales, puts that figure lower still, at £27,000 ($44,000).
The Bar Standards Board, which regulates barristers in England and Wales, issued a warning in December that barristers should not “deliberately inflict detriment to your client or disruption to the court’s processes as a form of leverage to further your own interests.” At press time, the BSB would not comment on whether any action would be taken against barristers involved in the walkout. Many courts, having been notified by the CBA of the boycott in advance, had already rescheduled cases. The Ministry of Justice will publish a response to its latest consultation over the cuts before deciding whether to proceed with them.