January saw the first ever Industrial Action conducted by judges and solicitors in England and Wales. The lawyers strike was undertaken after a proposal in 2013 was met with protests. The proposal is to cut legal aid by 30%. The fees provided for legal aid to solicitors and judges are meant to cover the costs of a case such as travel, lawyers salaries, interview time, research, the actual court costs, and to give income to legal aid staff members. Legal aid is designed to help those who cannot afford paid representation to still have a qualified individual working on their behalf. The proposal is designed to save 220 million pounds per year for the government.
Those who created the proposal are showing high salaries for judges and solicitors. Some have been paid upwards of 500,000 pounds per year, while the median income is seen as 100,000 pounds.
Judges, solicitors and their associations like the Criminal Bar Association staged their half day walkout – as part of a lawyers strike syndicate – to get the people of England and Wales to take notice of the damage these cuts will do to the legal system whilst they are on strike.
They contend that while the income appears high on paper, those creating the proposal are not looking at the actual earned income but the gross amount paid out for the cases they oversaw. The Ministry of Justice showed 1,200 barristers made 100,000 pounds per person in 2013. Barristers came back with the answers that their income tax reports need to be assessed.
If looking at the VAT, pension provisions, chambers’ fees, travelling, and other expenses which are deducted from the 100,000 pounds then the MoJ will see a minimum income of 50,000 pounds. Newer legal aid lawyers are actually making far less such as 13,000 pounds to 25,000 pounds per year. If looking at all evidence then it is clear many junior bar solicitors and barristers are going bankrupt on a lack of proper income.
Income is just one reason judges and lawyers appeared for a half day to ask the Ministry of Justice to rethink their proposal of legal aid fee cuts. In reality it is not the fees they are paid that worry solicitors and judges. It is the inability to properly handle the case.
When there is worry of feeding oneself and family, it means looking for a new position or taking on paying clients is the only way. The proposal is going to create an issue within the legal system and the demonstration was designed to show how the court system will be affected if only mediocre talent is on hand to deal with cases.
Many interviewed on the reasons for the lawyers strike stated it was to make everyone in the nation realise it is a matter of quality and not of actual payment that will create an issue. The paid lawyers will be able to prosecute and create a good case for their client. Those without the ability to pay will find lesser quality work from those who remain in legal aid.
It will lead directly to more criminals being let out onto the streets, instead of being in gaol where they belong. If a person does not have time to focus on the legal aid case then things will be missed. These missed things could create a technicality a criminal is able to escape gaol with. The miscarriage of justice is the main reason to stop the reduction of 30% in legal aid fees.
Many of the judges and lawyers also requested that other industries be examined for their out of orbit incomes. Paid lawyers can make thousands of pounds a year, so there is no doubt that money is being made just not through the legal aid system. Furthermore, doctors working within the health system and being paid by the government have extremely high salaries too.
Lawyers and judges that walked out for the half day asked why are the doctors being ignored with regard to their high salaries? Why only look at the criminal and legal system for savings on money when there are clearly issues in doing so like criminals getting out of gaol.
The lawyers strike is not being called a protest, but more of a wakeup call to the nation to help everyone recognise the importance of legal aid and how it can affect everyone’s life and not just those involved in a case. The hope is that by walking out the government proposal will be re-evaluated. A lower cut based on actual take home salary data than 30% would be better than making it such a high cut in most lawyers’ opinions.