[JURIST] Thousands of UK criminal trial lawyers staged a half-day strike on Monday to protest planned government cuts to legal aid. The fee cuts, which would reduce their pay by as much as 30 percent [Bloomberg report], are part of an attempt by the government to lessen the country's deficit. Lawyers refused to attend court [BBC report] before 2:00 PM in cities including London, Manchester, Bristol and Cardiff as part of a walkout organized by the Criminal Bar Association [official website]. Mugul Chawla, QC [official profile], reading a statement on behalf of the south-eastern circuit, said that the cuts would lead to more guilty parties going unpunished and more innocent parties being wrongfully convicted as more defendants end up representing themselves. He went on to say that a number of high profile, white-collar fraud cases were in danger of going to court without representation for defendants. The impact of the cuts can already be seen in the UK's biggest insider trading investigation, Operation Tabernula, where only two of the six defendants have trial lawyers. Other protesters voiced concerns [Guardian report] that the cuts would leave people financially unable to join the criminal bar and limit access to legal aid to those who could afford it. A spokesperson from the Ministry of Justice stated that at about two billion pounds a year, the UK has one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world, and that that system would remain generous after reform as well. She also expressed her belief that the government's proposals would allow lawyers to be paid fairly for their work.
Lawyers and legal organizations alike have responded critically to the fee cuts since their proposal. In June, the UK Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), an independent public body that investigates miscarriages of justice, warned that the government's proposed changes to legal aid could increase the likelihood of convictions of vulnerable or mentally ill suspects. Earlier that month the Law Society [advocacy website] described [press release] the proposals as "unworkable" and likely to cause "catastrophic" damage to the UK's legal aid system. Also in June, the Bar Council [official website] released a criticism [press release] of Grayling's proposals, claiming that the Ministry of Justice "failed to consider hard evidence" and that the proposals are "a breathtakingly convoluted way of finding ... savings." In a letter to The Times [media website] on May 7, nine leading legal academics from six of the UK's top universities set out their concerns [press release] that the government's plan to cut criminal legal aid and introduce a system of tendering based on price could have devastating and irreversible consequences, making access to justice available only to those who can afford it and abandoning the professional lawyer-client relationship.