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Why is the legal sector striking?

With more strikes by barristers planned for July following those earlier this week, Julian Hayes explains exactly why this action is being taken by those working in the courts.

Monday saw barristers and solicitors standing shoulder to shoulder outside courts the length and breadth of England and Wales, including the Old Bailey, in protest over legal aid cuts and the slow death being suffered by the criminal justice system. For those of us that remain in practice in criminal law, the protests feel rather like a last stand against a profligate, careless, and neglectful government. Our dwindling numbers manning the barricades, the thin grey line resolutely defending not just their own futures but the very fabric of the criminal justice system.

Everyone should be reminded that legal aid was introduced, along with the NHS, in the aftermath of the Second World War as one of the pillars of the welfare state to protect the disadvantaged and vulnerable – most defendants within the system qualify as such. However, whether prince or pauper, when under investigation in a police station for interview, we are all entitled to free and independent legal advice from a suitably qualified lawyer.

The Conservative Party used to pride itself on being the party of law and order; yet over the last 12 years, its attitude towards the criminal justice system has been anything but that. Court and police station closures, reductions in police numbers, a lack of investment in the court infrastructure leading to crumbling and hazardous court buildings, have culminated in a major loss of hundreds of lawyers.

We cannot lay the blame entirely at the door of the Conservatives, the Labour government of the noughties set the tone, when the then Lord Chancellor, Derry Irvine, made it his political goal to reduce expenditure on legal aid and infamously commented that he knew his draconian measures were working “when you hear the squeals from the lawyers”. Those squeals have faded with the dwindling numbers.

Lawyers had anticipated that the recommendations made in the Bellamy Legal Aid Review would be implemented fully and speedily given the grave concerns it raised. The Review had suggested that the rates should immediately be raised by a minimum of 15 per cent with the prospect of more to come. We all rejoiced when the government claimed it would follow the recommendations, however, as we have all grown accustomed, the word of any justice minister cannot be trusted. After some number crunching the Law Society advised that the proposed increase amounted only to a 9 per cent and took the unusual step to recommend that law firms should think very carefully before agreeing to sign up to the new legal aid contracts due to commence in the autumn.

Published in Comment Central

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