The new Advocates' Graduated Fee Scheme due to be introduced by the Ministry of Justice on 1 April 2018 will result in a significant overall cut in fees. This will threaten the continued existence of our Chambers and many others. In our view, the future of the publicly funded criminal bar is at stake. In order to protect and preserve our Criminal Justice System, Garden Court Chambers will not be undertaking any publicly funded criminal work with legal aid certificates dated from 1st April 2018 and will be operating a “no returns” policy. We call on all our colleagues at the criminal bar to join us. We emphasise that we are all members of the Criminal Bar Association and are fully supportive of the organisation.
Garden Court Chambers has published an open letter to the Ministry of Justice, which can be read below and features in the Times today (23 March 2018).
OPEN LETTER FROM GARDEN COURT CHAMBERS CALLING ON MINISTRY OF JUSTICE TO RETHINK SWINGEING AGFS CUTS TO LEGAL AID
The Criminal Justice System has been decimated by more than a decade of cuts. The proposals to reform legal aid fees for barristers are part of that bigger picture.
The Criminal Justice System is not sustainable in its current form. Police budgets have been massacred leading to drops in the detection and prosecution of offences. Appalling disclosure failings have led to the imprisonment of the innocent. Delays have resulted in complainants and witnesses losing faith, withdrawing from the proceedings and potentially allowing the guilty to go free.
The Crown Prosecution Service has seen unprecedented cuts. Courts are being closed and those left open are in states of abject disrepair, with Court staff undermined and underpaid. Criminal solicitors are at crisis point and face further swingeing cuts to legal aid litigation fees. The former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, has warned of a ‘ticking time bomb’ and unprecedented recruitment crisis within the judiciary.
Prisons are underfunded and understaffed, resulting in dangerous institutions where self-harm, mental illness, suicide, assaults and murder are at unprecedented levels. The privatisation of the probation service has been a complete failure.
The Criminal Justice System is only able to function by relying on the goodwill of those working within it but morale within the system is at an all time low.
Barristers undertaking publicly funded work have seen cuts of 40% to their incomes over the last 20 years, with current fees at a lower level than they were in 1998, while the volume of work required and demanded has increased significantly. The proposed reform of the legal aid scheme (Advocates' Graduated Fee Scheme) compounds those cuts and adds to them. Funding for criminal legal aid had already been cut back to the bone; these proposals appear to be Doomsday for the profession.
Talented young lawyers are choosing not to come to a dying profession, whilst others leave owing to the unreasonable demands upon them. This is particularly true of women, BAME people and those from working class backgrounds. Progress made in recent years to improve diversity at the Bar is being unravelled. This has profound consequences for the diversity of the judiciary and public confidence in its ability to reflect British society and represent the communities it serves.
We believe that the publicly funded Bar is at threat like never before and that the Criminal Justice System is crumbling around us. Every week brings news of another criminal trial collapsing due to lack of adequate resources. As recognised by Michael Gove, the then Lord Chancellor, there is a two-tier system of justice. The gulf grows daily. This is not acceptable in a modern democracy. The rule of law is under attack.
The only option is for a significant injection of resources into all levels, from policing through to courts and funding of legal aid.
The alternative is to allow increasing numbers of potential criminals to walk free but at the same time allow miscarriages of justice and the conviction of the innocent by failing to properly resource the prosecution and defence.
The British public at a minimum has a right to a Criminal Justice System which is fit for purpose, guarantees fair trials for all and treats victims, witnesses and defendants with respect.
We call on the Ministry of Justice to:
- Invest wholesale in the Criminal Justice System
- Invest in this scheme to make it sustainable for the Criminal Bar
- Rethink the AGFS scheme and publish all of their modelling which allows them to say the scheme is “cost neutral”. If it truly is cost neutral then we cannot see any sustainable objection to such an approach
- Index link fees so that they rise with inflation rather than amounting to a year-on-year cut
We share the concerns of Angela Rafferty QC, Chair of the Criminal Bar Association and the wider Criminal Bar Association and note they are surveying their membership on the professions’ stance in respect of action for justice.
Garden Court Chambers is committed to taking any action necessary to protect and preserve our Criminal Justice System. We call on our colleagues across the Criminal Bar to join us.
Leslie Thomas QC, Chair and Joint Head of Chambers
Marc Willers QC, Joint Head of Chambers
Judy Khan QC, Joint Head of Chambers
Michael Turner QC, Garden Court Chambers and former Chair of the CBA
All members of Garden Court Chambers