The legal aid walk-out: time to get political

Criminal solicitors and barristers in England and Wales refused to attend court this morning, in protest at the Lib-Con coalition government’s proposed cuts to legal aid – the British state subsidy for legal representation.

Despite being closely involved in the proposed cut’s lengthy consultation period, British lawyers are almost unanimously opposed to it on the grounds that it will limit people’s access to justice and have a substantial impact on the earnings of working lawyers.

Despite the cuts having the potential to destroy completely the criminal-justice system as we know it, there are a number of reasons why this ‘non-attendance’ – everyone involved is desperate not to call it a ‘strike’ – will ultimately fail to capture public attention.

Firstly, it is not flippant to point out that it was probably a bad idea for barristers to appear protesting in full wigs and gowns – looking every bit the overpaid elite, with pockets lined by public money, that the government has been making them out to be.

Secondly, timing the strike on the day that the majority of the country goes back to work after Christmas – which has been termed ‘the most depressing day of the year’ – means that most people were probably too busy facing their own work situation to care about someone else’s. 

Thirdly, one morning walk-out is not substantial enough to have any real impact. If barristers were to close the courts for a week, rather than a morning, the results would be absolute chaos in the justice system. It would not take long for the government’s costs to accumulate. Unfortunately, the problem is that barristers are self-employed, and often rely on certain cases for a substantial proportion of their income. This means that missing a single hearing on a particular day could potentially mean a mid-level barrister losing most of their earnings for the year. The average earnings for a mid-level criminal barrister are around £36,000 per year, but most criminal barristers earn much less than this.

The criminal-justice system is certainly under threat from the proposed cuts to legal aid. More and more people who are accused of a crime, but are who unable to fund their own defence, are likely to find themselves with much poorer legal representation as a result. But if the legal profession want its protests to have any impact, it needs to keep making the political point – that legal aid is an important curb on the state’s most draconian powers – rather than sticking to purely financial arguments.

Luke Gittos is law editor at spiked, a solicitor practicing criminal law and convenor of the London Legal Salon.

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