Criminal barristers have voted to join a protest by solicitors over deep cuts to legal aid fees that threatens to bring magistrates and crown courts to a standstill.
The decision by the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) came as Michael Gove, the new justice secretary, prepared to appear before MPs on the justice select committee for the first time.
The CBA, which has approximately 4,000 members in England and Wales, voted narrowly in favour of refusing to work on new cases paid at lower legal aid rates that came into effect on 1 July. About 55% voted in favour and 45% were against. Turnout was around 45%.
The leadership of the CBA had urged members to vote against action. Criminal barristers will also adopt a policy of “no returns” where they refuse to cover for colleagues at courts. It could result in cases being further delayed due to lack of representation.
A statement from the CBA said: “Given the seriousness of this action and in order to avoid professional conduct implications, there needs to be an opportunity to inform professional and lay clients, and to make representations to court managers and judges that cases be rescheduled to avert clashes that can be identified in advance. The CBA Executive will consider how best this might be achieved.”
Gove told the justice select committee: “I’m disappointed that the members of the CBA have voted in their ballot to take action. I believe the action is unnecessary at this time. We want to work constructively to ensure that we have a healthy engagement with the Bar.
“Some of the reductions in legal aid have caused considerable concern. I don’t think those concerns … are motivated by self-interest. They are concerns about whether individuals have not got access to justice.”
Gove promised to review the impact of steep fees rises in employment tribunals, but said that reducing the number of claims was not necessarily evidence of “rough justice”. He confirmed that the government’s proposals for scrapping the Human Rights Act would be published in the Autumn. Gove said he hoped the UK would remain within the European convention on human rights but added: “I can’t give a 100% guarantee.”