Don't call it a 'strike': Barristers withdraw labour and courts including Old Bailey fall silent for the first time in centuries over legal aid cuts

They feel misrepresented as 'fat cats' and are alarmed by cuts in the legal aid budget

Political Correspondent

There were no shop stewards in donkey jackets or flying pickets. That icon of British union-led disputes, the brasier, was absent from the action.  There were orders that no one should indulge in economic vulgarity and call it "a strike". Nevertheless, for the first time in a history that stretches back to the 14th century, criminal barristers in England and Wales  suspended production, withdrew their labour, and for half a day the criminal courts, including the Old Bailey, fell silent.

All strikes have hate-figures. For the miners in 1984 it was Margaret Thatcher. For today's barristers, the proposed cuts to legal aid fees ordered by the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling,  have become the equivalent of pit closures. 

Charles Evans, from New Bridge Street chambers, standing in the cold and appearing for himself, said:  "It's funny that this dispute has coincided with the news that Mrs Thatcher lied about the way she dealt with the miners.  A lie brought down that industry - and it is lies now that will bring down the criminal bar."

Evans was outside the Central Criminal Court.  There were similar scenes outside crown and magistrates courts across the country. Barristers in gowns and wigs, stood in the territory normally reserved for press photographers trying to snatch a picture of show trial defendants. It looked like an elaborate fire-drill had evacuated hallowed halls of justice.

The Justice Secretary intends to remove £220m a year from the criminal legal aid budget. Barristers believe they are being deliberately misrepresented as "fat cat" lawyers, milking the public purse. Gareth Hughes from 2 Pump Court, said that Grayling's claim of criminal barristers taking home an average of £100K a year was "simply not true" and that the Ministry of Justice were "cynically manipulating the figures to influence public opinion".

Red and white tape lined the narrow street outside the Bailey. It  looked like the police were expecting trouble. Were horses and baton-wielding officers waiting round the corner? No. The tape was simply an aid for lorries delivering to a neighbouring building site.

Ben Hayhurst, also from 2 Pump Court,  said Grayling "just wants to make a name for himself." Others outside the Bailey were clear on what that name could be - Thatcher was called the same thing by the NUM leader,  Arthur Scargill.

Some of the legal representatives and supporters outside Birmingham Crown Court as barristers around the country stage a walk-out over legal aid cuts Some of the legal representatives and supporters outside Birmingham Crown Court as barristers around the country stage a walk-out over legal aid cuts Evans, who claimed every barrister was uncomfortable at the action they were taking, said the criminal justice system was "already close to collapse". He forecast an end to the independence of criminal barristers,  where four or five corporate firms would dominate the industry, and where young and inexperienced barristers would have divided loyalties between their firms shareholders and their clients.

Hayhurst, a barrister for just over 10 years, said he was being forced to turn away criminal work. "I can't afford it. The fees won't pay my mortgage."

There was unanimous dismissal of Grayling's £100,000 average pay as "nonsense".  More like £37,000 most said.  And there was anger. Did the public want to see cases rushed? Did they want someone cheap, just out of law school prosecuting terrorists? Did people know miscarriages of justice would soar?

If this was indeed a strike, it was the probably the most well-argued and eloquent dispute in English labour history. And no one needed a lawyer to plead their case.

Many said the evidence was stacked against Grayling. One said "This isn't the criminal bar taking a cut like everyone else in the public sector. We've been cut since the late 1990s - fees are already down some 40 percent of the rates charged in the late nineties.

Bartholomew O'Toole, from 5 Kings Bench Walk, said the attraction of becoming a barrister was going. "2000 apply for law school, 700 become pupils in a chamber. 400 get tenancies [permanent jobs]. Then they find the money is just not there. In five years the criminal bar will be gone, unrecognisable."

Sarah Forshaw QC, the head of chambers at 5 KBW, also head of the South East circuit, covering courts from Norwich to Sussex, including London, said "Grayling has no legal experience. That shouldn't matter if he listens - but he doesn't. We've told him where he can find the savings he needs without removing specialist advocates, but he won't listen."

Inside the Bailey, where normally there would have been the busy legal traffic of counsel, court officers and the accompanying flow of what one official called "the good, the bad and the ugly side of the law",  there was instead only  large silent empty  halls.

But on floor 2, waiting for his client, James Cartwright, called to the bar in 1968, summed up his side's case. "If you are going to live by the rule of law, then you need good lawyers. This cannot happen if you pay them silly money."

 

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Bathroom Showroom Manager / Bathroom Sales Designer

£22 - £25k basic + Commission=OTE £35k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Bathroom Sh...

Guru Careers: Marketing Executive / Digital Marketing Executive

COMPETITIVE: Guru Careers: A Marketing / Digital Marketing Executive (CRM, Eve...

Recruitment Genius: Locksmith / Security Engineer - London & Southern Counties

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This provider of home security ...

Recruitment Genius: Web Designer / Developer

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This creative agency requires a...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones