U.K. Trial Lawyers Stage First Walkout in 600 Years on Fee Cuts

Thousands of criminal trial lawyers are staging a half-day strike across the U.K. in a protest against government cuts to legal aid that have reduced their pay by as much as 30 percent.

The barristers won’t attend court before 2 p.m. today as part of the walkout, the industry’s first in 600 years, according to the Criminal Bar Association. The action may affect cases across the country, with protests outside of venues including Southwark Crown Court in London, where some of the largest fraud prosecutions are heard.

The government is overhauling legal aid as part of austerity measures to trim the country’s deficit. They’re trying to cut 350 million pounds ($573 million) from the 2 billion-pound annual budget for legal aid, according to the Ministry of Justice. A 30 percent fee reduction in long-running, high-cost cases came into effect in December.

“Inevitably, more defendants will end up representing themselves,” said Mukul Chawla, a barrister who is advising the Serious Fraud Office in prosecuting traders over manipulation of benchmark interest rates. “A number of high-profile, white-collar fraud cases are in danger of going to court without defendants being represented.”

The cuts have already affected proceedings in the U.K.’s biggest insider-trading investigation, known as Operation Tabernula, as only two of the six defendants have trial lawyers after the others withdrew.

‘Unprecedented Responses’

A solicitor for one of the defendants told a London court last month they’d asked 74 barristers’ firms, known as chambers, to take the case on the reduced budget, without success.

“When the justice secretary announced his consultation on transforming legal aid last year, he received an unprecedented 16,000 responses opposing virtually all of his proposals and suggesting constructive ways in which saving could be made without cutting remuneration rates further,” Chawla said.

Tooks Chambers, a London-based set of trial lawyers with 90 percent of its work publicly-funded, closed in December as a “direct result of government policies on legal aid,” the firm said.

“At around 2 billion pounds a year, we have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world, and it would remain very generous even after reform,” the Ministry of Justice said in an e-mailed statement today. “Latest figures show more than 1,200 barristers judged to be working full time on taxpayer funded criminal work received 100,000 pounds each in fee income last year, with six barristers receiving more than 500,000 pounds each.”

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