Many criminal law barristers, who are self-employed, have been refusing to take on new taxpayer-funded cases since April 1 in protest at changes to the fees being brought in by the Government.
The Criminal Bar Association has warned it could escalate the action.
It said the legal system was “in crisis and has broken”, in a statement co-signed by Nigel Sangster QC, leader of the North-East Circuit, which covers Yorkshire.
It said the Government was failing to invest in criminal justice, adding: “Our profession cannot wait whilst the onslaught of cuts continue. The Government must accept that a budget stripped more than any other, with continuous cuts, will result in completely unacceptable conditions for those who work in it and are affected by it.”
Now The Yorkshire Post has seen a letter from judges in the North of England which calls on solicitors to stand in for barristers during pre-trial hearings - a move strongly resisted by solicitors’ body the Law Society, which argues that clients have a right to a qualified barrister’s advice.
The letter from judges relates to the circuit in the North-West but the Law Society expects similar moves from other judges across the country imminently and has issued guidance on resisting the move to the 531 criminal defence lawyers in the Yorkshire region.
And the society has warned that it is now only a matter of time before the strike begins to disrupt many hundreds of cases being heard across the region’s crown courts.
Law Society head of justice Richard Miller said: “The situation is unprecedented and has been brought about because both strands of the legal profession are on their knees.
“Twenty years without any increases in fees, and a series of drastic cuts have pushed the criminal justice system to breaking point.
“Access to independent, expert legal advice is a fundamental right in a democracy. We appreciate these judges want to ensure the smooth administration of justice. However, the unavailability of a barrister – for whatever reason – does not place an obligation on a solicitor to take over the barrister’s responsibilities, if they feel unsuited to the case.”
The action by barristers began in response to Government changes to the fixed fees they are paid to carry out publicly-funded work in the Crown Court under the Advocates’ Graduated Fee Scheme (AGFS).
The House of Commons will today hold a debate on the situation and the changes to fees which sparked it.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice insisted the reforms were not a cut to barristers’ fees. He said they were cost-neutral when compared to the fees paid out in 2016/17 - a year in which the AGFS scheme cost the ministry £226m of its total £1.6bn legal aid budget.
He said that as a result of continued negotiations with the Bar, the new scheme would now cost £9m more than the one originally consulted on.
He said: “We are extremely disappointed with the position the Criminal Bar Association has taken, especially given that they and other members of the Bar participated fully in the design of the scheme.
“We are reforming the Advocates’ Graduated Fee Scheme to ensure that cases such as murder, serious violence, terrorism and sexual offences receive greater levels of funding.”
Shadow justice secretary and Leeds East MP Richard Burgon has warned that the Government “can’t do justice on the cheap”.