Lawyers to walk out of criminal trials over pay dispute

A dispute over pay has raised the threat of widespread disruption for the criminal justice system next month.

QCs are expected to join hundreds of barristers in refusing to appear in criminal trials, after the collapse of talks between Bar leaders and the Lord Chancellor and his officials on rates of pay.

Hundreds of solicitors will also back the barristers. The Law Society will say today that solicitors are entitled to refuse to step into trials to replace barristers, according to the Times.

The nationwide action, which now looks certain to go ahead, would have the same impact as a strike, although it is not co-ordinated and the Bar insists that it is not industrial action as barristers are self-employed.

Many trials and pre-trial hearings will be postponed.

The dispute centres on pay changes, announced in July, that will see fees for representing defendants cut by between 1% and 46% from 1 October 2005.

The Bar chairman, Guy Mansfield, said the cuts were “un-necessary, inappropriate and ill-timed”. They introduced a discrepancy between prosecution and defence work, reduced the mark-up for longer cases and were creating “justifiable anger amongst criminal practitioners”.

The savings are being imposed as a result of an overspend by officials on the £2bn legal aid budget.

The Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, argues that the cost of criminal legal aid has risen steeply in recent years and that the average payment to individual barristers has also gone up.

He has set up a full-scale review under Lord Carter of the funding of criminal cases, but that will not report until January.

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