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Vast majority of crime barristers back picket lines to oppose legal aid reforms

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First challenge for newbie Justice Secretary Gove could be to dodge his way through striking lawyers looking to block “dual provider scheme”

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Break out the donkey jackets and the braziers (although the latter probably won’t be required in late spring/early summer) — criminal barristers seem hell bent on returning to the picket lines.

Recently appointed Justice Secretary Michael Gove enjoyed a brief honeymoon after the general election, with the highlight being his swearing in ceremony at the Royal Courts of Justice. He got to wear some posh robes and lawyers were generally civil towards him.

Now the gloves are off. The Criminal Bar Association (CBA) announced today that an overwhelming majority of its members supports strike action in protest against continuing legal aid reforms.

“No barrister wishes to withhold his/her labour,” said CBA chairman Tony Cross QC, of Lincoln House Chambers in Manchester. “It is a measure of the extreme nature of our concern that so many of our members are contemplating such action.”

According to a CBA survey, 96% of criminal law specialist barristers support setting up picket lines in a bid to convince the Ministry of Justice to think again about implementing its so-called dual provider scheme.

Under that proposal, the government would split criminal legal aid work into two contracts — one for “own client work” and another for duty providers. Specialist law firms would have to apply to the Legal Aid Agency for contracts for both.

According to the CBA, the reform would have a devastating affect on the criminal bar. In a message to association members earlier this month, Cross said:

“At present firms still need to protect their reputations by instructing barristers for a significant proportion of their advocacy in the Crown Court. We are the specialist advocates and under current arrangements there remains a significant market for our services.

“However, once the market is fixed, these considerations will no longer apply in the same way, and once a much larger share of the work is guaranteed, much more of the advocacy can be taken in-house, and much of the remainder will go to freelance advocates who pay a 30% management fee (sometimes more) back to the firm.

“This is the rational commercial reality that [the duty provider scheme] will enshrine. Justice for all will suffer.”

In today’s statement, Cross lambasted the MoJ reforms for having “no sensible economic foundation”.

He said the government’s plan would “lead to irreversible damage to the criminal justice system. The proposed scheme will reduce competition, stifle innovation and paralyse the market as it becomes closed to new entrants”.

The association took to social media to counter suggestions that response to its survey was low and therefore not a strong indicator of barrister support for strike action.

Commented Cross:

“The overwhelming support of our members demonstrates the seriousness of our purpose: our commitment to effective access to justice for all our citizens.

“We know that as Lord Chancellor, the Secretary of State for Justice understands the importance to society of a healthy and effective criminal justice system. We remain committed to constructive dialogue with the government to ensure that our country has a criminal justice system that is fit for the 21st century.”

Last year, criminal barristers ran a series of strike days as well as implementing a “no return” policy in relation to briefs. Both measures came close to bringing the criminal courts to a halt.

But action was suspended in the run-up to the general election earlier this month.