For the first time in the history of legal chambers across Britain, bewigged and cravatted barristers, accompanied by solicitors, defied the threats of the Bar Standards Board and walked out in protest at proposed cuts to the criminal legal aid budget.
On 6 January Crown and Magistrates' Courts closed their doors across England and Wales. The Old Bailey came to a standstill in mid-trial, leaving one judge to explain pathetically to the jury: “You can see the rather lonely position I am in.” In fact judges also helped to facilitate the strike by cooperating with the Criminal Bar Association in rescheduling trials on the day.
In addition to the Criminal Bar Association, several other august bodies have combined to oppose the government: the Law Society representing solicitors, the barristers’ Bar Council, and Treasury Counsel, an organisation of elite barristers prosecuting the most serious crimes.
The response was massive and unanimous, with placard-waving barristers outside some courts, warning the public to “be afraid without legal aid”. Their aim was twofold: to defend British justice for rich and poor alike, and to express anger at attacks on their professional pay by ignorant ministers.
It has been recognised since the 19th century that under capitalism legal aid is the only way most of the working class can afford to bring a case, but funding has been relentlessly slashed since 2008. Solicitors have in the past taken effective action of their own. In April 2013 Parliament provoked action when it passed the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO), whereby divorce and custody battles, and immigration cases will have funding removed.
In September the government was forced to back down over its plans to put legal advice out to competitive tendering. If it had got its way, 1,200 law firms stood to go out of business, and the public would have been denied the right to choose a lawyer.
In what lawyers say is the most serious threat to the British legal system in over 400 years, justice minister Chris Grayling is now proposing a cut of 41 per cent in real terms by 2018. This in spite of the fact that the legal aid budget was underspent by £56 million in 2013.
The Howard League for Penal Reform said this was politically motivated. True. It’s also economically illiterate, leaving people like teenagers and mothers separated from their babies in jail for longer at public expense if they cannot get legal support for the courses needed to “move through the prison maze”. An Oxford Economics report said the declining crime rate will save £80 million a year, so there is no need for cuts.
In the row over barristers’ earnings, legal aid minister Shailesh Vara tried to give the impression of a profession of “fat cats”. This is a slur, which all self-employed groups have to contend with, as earnings are often quoted before tax and before such things as professional rents, insurance and pension contributions, and the expense of “tools of the trade” have been taken into account.
The trade journal The Lawyer points out that barristers compare with students. The cost of their training is around £17,000. They start out saddled with debt and proceed with loans of up to £70,000 before they can get a tenancy in chambers, as during pupillage fees are slow to come through. It turns out that for the average criminal barrister taxable income is only around £32,000 a year. For the hours put in, many are working below the minimum wage.
As Marx pointed out in the Communist Manifesto, capitalism forces all workers into one class – the working class. Lawyers are wage slaves like the rest of us. ■