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Saturday, 02 August 2014

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Carlisle Crown Court hearings postponed after barrister in walkout

Hearings at Carlisle Crown Court were postponed after local barristers joined a national walkout over cuts in legal aid.

The Government has infuriated barristers and solicitors by pressing ahead with controversial cuts in a bid to slice £220m from the country’s £2bn legal aid bill.

One experienced Carlisle-based barrister said the primary issue for him and many colleagues was not money but the effect of the cuts on the quality of justice.

“The fees barristers are paid now are nothing like what they were 10 year ago,” he said. “We’ve already absorbed huge cuts: over the last four or five years earnings have gone down by 14 or 15 per cent; and when you consider the hours we work, the pay is now at what I’d call tradesman levels – what a plumber or a joiner would earn.

“A lot of people would ask what’s wrong with that, and fair enough. But it’s not about money. It’s a quality argument.

“The cuts are now going so far they they’re reducing the capacity for people to be property defended in court.”

The barrister cited the example how the fees for expert reports are being reduced to such a level that many defendants may find themselves unable on legal aid to afford them.

He spoke also of how criminal lawyers on a duty rota to represent prisoners at police stations are now being asked to cover much larger areas, with those based in Whitehaven being expected to cover areas as far afield as Barrow in south Cumbria.

He added: “There’s very little support for this outside the Ministry of Justice, but they’ re bringing about these cuts by making a lot of the work uneconomic for people to do.

“They’ve already introduced means testing for defendants, so that people have to pay enormously high contributions, so that more and more people are going unrepresented in court.”

Some barristers fear that the future of criminal law work will increasingly be handed over to unqualified legal advisors.

At Carlisle Crown Court yesterday, most of the cases due to be dealt with did not go ahead because of the walk-out. Only a handful of highly sensitive cases – including a sex abuse trial – went ahead.

The Government’s cuts, which will be phased in from April, include cutting fees in complex, high-cost cases by 30 per cent, and in other crown court work by up to 18 per cent.

The Ministry of Justice said that the legal aid system in England and Wales was “one of the most expensive” in the world.

A spokeswoman added: “As everybody knows, this government is dealing with an unprecedented financial challenge and the MoJ has no choice but to significantly reduce the amount of money it spends every year.”

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