The first national strike by barristers came a step closer yesterday, following a Bar Council meeting in London which expressed fury over proposed cuts to legal aid. Barristers' leaders also faced calls to boycott the Government's Global Law Summit – designed to celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta – next year. There were also calls, albeit half-joking, to prosecute Justice Secretary Chris Grayling.
The Criminal Bar Association is due to decide this week what to do about the Government's plan to cut the £2bn legal aid bill by about £220m. Nigel Lithman QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association, said the Government appeared to be gearing up for industrial action.
"The Government has shown such contempt for the independent criminal bar that they are prepared to set up, or try to set up, a group of employed barristers," he said. "Suddenly the Government has found money … to pay them, so desperate are they to bust what they see – and they are quite right – as a strike, offering barristers up to £125,000 to join the public defence service and betray their life-long principles." He warned the cuts meant there would soon be "nobody of any ability to prosecute serious crime", and "no one of any ability to defend you".
Lawyers held a half-day stoppage last month. Strike action that involved barristers not turning up for trials would be more serious.
Sir Ivan Lawrence QC, a Conservative MP for 23 years, said barristers were in a "terrible, pitiful state" because ministers did not fear them. He said it was time to "hand the Government a list of dates on which we are going to withdraw our labour so the criminal justice system will grind to a standstill".
The meeting at Lincoln's Inn in London heard 24-year-old pupil barrister Hannah Evans say she was struggling to get by financially after turning over just £8,000 in 10 months. She said she was from an "ordinary background" who had gone to a comprehensive school. Travel and other expenses sometimes cost more than the £80 fee for a day in a magistrates' court. "I will not be able to survive if the Government's so-called reforms take place," she said.
A Justice Ministry spokesman said the Government agreed "legal aid is a vital part of our justice system", adding: "That's why we have to find efficiencies to ensure it remains sustainable and available to those most in need of a lawyer."
Iain Morley QC said the Government had been misleading the public about the state of barristers' finances to such an extent that it could be argued Mr Grayling was furthering his career by making allegedly false statements in contravention of section 2 of the Fraud Act 2006.