Barristers in boycott at Canterbury Crown Court and Maidstone Crown Court over legal aid fees
Kent’s top barristers and solicitor-advocates are making history this morning by boycotting the county’s crown courts in Maidstone and Canterbury.
The lawyers are angry about the government slashing Legal Aid fees paid for criminal cases - including murder.
Now, for the first time ever, the criminal bar is refusing to attend hearings in Kent - which has resulted in cases being delayed until 2pm.
Oliver Saxby QC is concerned about Legal Aid budget cuts
Oliver Saxby - one of the county’s top QCs - said: “I know it’s almost unheard of for barristers to down tools - but this shows clearly the strength of our feeling.
“The rates we are paid were set more than six years ago - and haven’t changed since, despite the cost of living.
“But in reality what many are now being paid is 35 per cent less in real terms than in 2007.”
Mr Saxby said many top barristers faced even harsher cuts, with six out of 10 lawyers receiving less than £50,000 a year from Legal Aid, which includes VAT.
“The resultant figure after VAT is about £35,000 and from that they have to pay expenses for running chambers, pensions and health insurance.
“The Bar has stood firm against further cuts which this Government want to introduce because no other profession has sustained cuts of the magnitude already imposed on us.”
The Criminal Bar Association is refusing to call today's action a "strike" because it would, ironically, lead to complex legal contractual issues.
But the lawyers are promising no one's liberty will be compromised by the action.
Mr Saxby has warned many advocates are being forced out of the profession - leaving defendants without access to the best legal brains.
“The criminal justice system is already suffering as a direct result of these cuts, trials will take longer and people will be denied access to justice. That cannot be right.”
The Ministry of Justice is planning to save £220m out of the annual criminal aid bill by mainly slashing fees by 17.5 per cent.
"Legal aid is seen as a gravy train for barristers, who come from privileged backgrounds and all earn six-figure sums. That is simply not true" - Oliver Saxby QC
Mr Saxby added: "One of the common misconceptions is that legal aid is seen as a gravy train for barristers, who come from privileged backgrounds and all earn six-figure sums. That is simply not true."
The half-day action - which involved barristers and solititors all over England and Wales - will involve in counsel meeting at courts but refusing to start work until the afternoon.
The barristers - who are threatening to take future "mass non-attendance" action - will hold a meeting in the court building, but they are refusing to start work until this afternoon.
Commenting on the staged protest, Professor John Fitzpatrick, director of the Kent Law Clinic at the University of Kent, said: "The protest action being taken by solicitors and barristers in Kent and nationally against the cuts in criminal legal aid, is a welcome wake-up call not just for the government but for the public at large.
"Talk about greedy lawyers is nonsense. Without properly funded legal aid the legal system will work only for the rich and powerful, and if it works only for the rich and powerful in the not very long run, it won't work at all.
"Working with student lawyers in the Kent Law Clinic, we see only too clearly every day the injustices suffered by those with no chance of being properly represented in courts and tribunals. Legal aid, especially for criminal defence work, is essential for the maintenance of the rule of law."
Up to 50 barristers congregated outside Maidstone Crown Court today as part of the countrywide walk-out.
None of the eight courts were sitting this morning as lawyers turned up as usual but refused to start cases until 2pm.
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