Shine A Light

Criminal barristers strike in England and Wales

The British government insists that the cost of Legal Aid is spiralling out of control. The facts suggest otherwise. 

Jon Mack
6 January 2014
Barrister's strike.jpg

credit - Katy Lee (@kjalee)

Barristers today are withdrawing their labour from criminal trials in England and Wales to draw attention to cuts to the criminal justice budget. Separately, barristers in the most serious and complex criminal trials have returned their briefs in protest at a unilateral fee cut.

  • The Ministry of Justice has had its budget cut dramatically:
  • 2011/12: £719 million;
  • 2012/13: £580 million;  
  • 2013/14: £75 million; 
  • 2014/15: £ 77 million;
  • 2015/16: £71 million.

Despite a falling Legal Aid spend (and an underspend last year of £56 million), the Ministry of Justice forges ahead with a plan to slash Legal Aid fees by up to 30 per cent in the most serious criminal cases and by 17.5 per cent in other cases.

‘A profession in crisis’

Speaking in a parliamentary debate on 11 December 2013, Lord Faulks QC – not himself a criminal barrister – said,

"It is beyond argument that criminal barristers are, for the most part, very moderately paid. They are self-employed and have little muscle or obvious appeal in any negotiating process. There is no doubt that the criminal Bar is a profession in crisis. However indifferent the public may be to the individual circumstances of barristers, there will, I apprehend, be far more concern if the system as a whole is degraded."

You can read Dan Bunting’s parliamentary sketch here. Lord Faulks QC has since been appointed to government as a volunteer minister (perhaps an indication of just how cash-strapped the MoJ is). A bit like the Special Constable / PC relationship, he has the same uniform and powers as a ‘real’ minister, (he might feel more comfortable with the Recorder / Circuit Judge analogy, of which he has professional experience). He’s very different to his predecessor Lord MacNally, who dismissed concerns about the Legal Aid changes as a "wage negotiation with a vested interest."

How much does Legal Aid cost?

In recent months, you may have been left with the impression that the Legal Aid budget is spiralling out of control. Fat Cat barristers getting fatter as the Daily Mail would say. You may have seen the Justice Secretary asserting the rising cost of Legal Aid in The Law Society Gazette on 20th May 2013, Muslim News on 30 May 2013, The Telegraph on 1st June 2013, BBC News or Independent on 5th September 2013, The Times on 16th November 2013, or on the optimistically named Government Knowledge website. To reinforce the message, we can expect the annual – and usually error ridden – tawdry shaming of top earning criminal barristers (cf: senior police officers, senior military personnel, and senior civil servants in the MoJ).

The Ministry of Justice’s own figures paint a different picture. Far from spiralling out of control, the cost of criminal Legal Aid has been controlled and has fallen by 31 per cent since 2004/05. In the current year, it will naturally fall by 6 per cent. The annual cost is £264 million less than it was when the coalition came to power. That’s without any intervention by the Ministry of Justice.

Some points to bear in mind. The Legal Aid spend includes VAT (value added tax). Currently at 20 per cent, that means that over £188 million of the projected spend for 2013/14 is tax. But bear in mind also, that when the VAT rate rose from 17.5 per cent to 20 per cent in January 2011, the criminal Legal Aid spend fell by £49 million. In reality, as solicitor Stephen Bird points out, that annual saving was even better than £49 million.


This piece is republished from Jon Mack's blog.


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