Garden Court Chambers announces no returns action in response to legal aid cuts

Wednesday 9 May 2018

As of 25 May 2018, members of Garden Court Chambers will be implementing a no returns policy in line with the Criminal Bar Association protocol in order to protect and preserve our Criminal Justice System.

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For almost 6 weeks, members of Garden Court Chambers along with many barristers around the country have refused to accept publicly funded criminal work with legal aid certificates dated from 1 April 2018 onwards. This action was not taken lightly but because in our view, the future of the publicly funded criminal bar is at stake.

The new Advocates’ Graduated Fee Scheme (AGFS) 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.

We are dismayed that Lucy Frazer MP, the Legal Aid Minister, said yesterday, 9 May 2018 in a parliamentary debate that “the scheme does not bring in a cut; at the very least, it is cost neutral, but it is more likely to give rise to an increase in expenditure”. If this was indeed the case, why has the Ministry of Justice hitherto refused to provide the modelling which supports that assertion?

Ms. Frazer also said “the scheme is more advantageous to the Bar overall than the one it replaces, particularly for those at the junior end”. It is incredible that the Minister is willing to make such claims in circumstances where almost the entirety of the independent Criminal Bar have made individual decisions to refuse to take cases funded under the new scheme.

The significant underfunding of AGFS is part of a wider landscape: 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. The Crown Prosecution Service has seen unprecedented cuts. Courts are being closed and Court staff are undermined and underpaid. Criminal solicitors are at crisis point and face further devastating cuts to litigation fees.

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 at breaking point and is failing victims, defendants and the wider public.

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. The proposed reform of the AGFS scheme compounds those cuts and adds to them.

Rather than being advantageous to the Bar as the Minister claimed yesterday, the new AGFS scheme is Doomsday for the profession.

Talented young lawyers are already 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.

The Legal Aid minister said last night: “my Department has gone to chambers up and down this country. We have talked to them to understand their concerns about the scheme and to try to understand what position they prefer.” We have not seen or heard any evidence of this whatsoever.

We invite Ms. Frazer to come to Garden Court Chambers, one of the biggest criminal defence sets in the country, and we will explain exactly why this scheme will have devastating effects on the Criminal Bar and on wider access to justice for the vulnerable.

However, we have seen no attempt by the Ministry of Justice to co-operate with the Bar over the last 6 weeks and no attempt to show goodwill or to rethink the damaging AGFS scheme.

We call on the Ministry of Justice to show the goodwill promised by the Minister in Parliament and to engage with the profession.

In the absence of any such goodwill, we have no option but to refuse to cover returned work as of 25 May 2018.

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