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Criminal barristers vote to take action if government does not increase legal aid

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‘Justice system on its knees’, say bar leaders

Criminal barristers in England and Wales have voted overwhelmingly in favour of taking action if the government does not commit to a “substantial increase” in legal aid.

Nearly 2,000 barristers responded to an urgent survey by the Criminal Bar Association (CBA), demanding reform by the end of March. The survey results, released today, show that 96.5% of respondents are in favour of taking action, including ‘no returns’, if the government does not “commit to a substantial increase in criminal legal aid”.

An independent review of the criminal legal aid budget, led by Sir Christopher Bellamy QC, proposed a cash injection of £135 million a year as a “minimum” first step to “nursing” the system back to health after “years of neglect”. He said there was “no scope for further delay”.

Justice Secretary Dominic Raab has committed to responding to the review by the end of March, but barristers fear no action will be taken until at least the summer.

Some 91% agreed that the government’s current timetable is “unreasonable”, and 94% said ministers should publish their response to the review by 14 February and carry out the statutory consultation on changes being made by 31 March.

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“The views of the criminal bar could not be more clear,” said CBA chair Jo Sidhu QC and vice chair Kirsty Brimelow QC, in a joint statement. “Government must now take the urgent action necessary to resolve the funding crisis that has left the criminal justice system on its knees and driven out hundreds of our colleagues who could no longer sustain a career on pay that has declined in real terms over the last 25 years.”

They said that without the requisite undertakings from the government by 14 February, the CBA will move directly to a ballot for action.

Raab told Radio 4’s Today programme this morning: “The one thing that would hold back recovery in the courts system is if the Criminal Bar Association and criminal lawyers go on strike”.

He added: “I don’t think that would be supported across the wider sectors of the justice system and I certainly don’t think that will be supported by the public.”

The CBA hit back in a tweet saying: “Our members are the only thing that has kept the system on the rails for the last two years… 96% say enough. Inject funds now to save the future criminal justice system.”

Sir Christopher is due to give evidence on the review’s findings to the House of Commons’ Justice Committee this afternoon. Speaking ahead of this, Law Society president I. Stephanie Boyce reinforced her support of the measures suggested in the review and said she is keen to work with government on the detail of what will be required to implement them.

“If this does not happen, we fear that our members will leave the market at ever faster rates, which will seriously compromise the government’s ability to clear the huge backlog in the criminal courts and ensure timely justice for victims, witnesses and defendants,” said Boyce.

The news follows an investigation carried out by Legal Cheek last year which found that law students are starting to veer off a career in criminal practice.

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