LONDON : British criminal case lawyers staged an unprecedented walkout on Monday over cuts to the government’s legal aid budget, briefly paralysing the court system.
Hundreds of barristers in their black gowns and white wigs flocked outside the Old Bailey, England’s central criminal court, and other courts up and down England and Wales for the half-day walkout - the first of its kind in British history.
Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative-led government is planning to slash £220 million ($360 million, 265 million euros) from the annual £2 billion legal aid fund - which pays for court representation and other services for those who cannot afford it - by 2018/19.
The government says Britain’s legal aid system is the most expensive in the world and is seeking to cut its costs as part of its bid to reduce Britain’s deficit.
But criminal barristers say the cuts will reduce their fees by up to 41 percent, limiting the help available to defendants who cannot afford to pay for top lawyers.
“When the system is weakened, the eventual result is that the guilty will go unpunished and the innocent are wrongly convicted,” senior barrister Mukul Chawla read in a statement outside the Old Bailey in London.
The cuts “will drive the best from our profession,” Chawla added, as he stood surrounded by a thicket of cameramen and white-wigged barristers.
“In the end, and quite quickly I fear, it will have terrible consequences for the most vulnerable - including victims of crime and witnesses.”
The lawyer said there were other ways to cut the cost of justice than “raiding” the legal aid fund.
Barristers insisted the walkout did not amount to a “strike” as they are self-employed, but it forced many judges to change court schedules for the day.
The Ministry of Justice has insisted that legal aid fees to barristers remain “very generous”, arguing that 1,200 top lawyers working full-time on taxpayer-funded criminal work were paid more than £100,000 each last year.
But barristers lashed out at attempts to portray them as fat-cats.
“To accuse the bar as a whole of being fat-cats is equivalent to accusing the acting profession of being overpaid on the basis of the salaries of the likes of Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep,” Bartholomew O’Toole, one of those blocking access to the Old Bailey on Monday, told AFP.
Nigel Lithman, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association which represents barristers in England and Wales, said the average barrister was paid close to the national average salary of £27,000.