The criminal Bar has narrowly voted to accept the government’s offer of £15m additional funding for the advocates’ graduated fee scheme, a result described as “neither a defeat nor a victory”.
Some 1,566 (51.55%) barristers voted to accept and 1,472 (48.45%) voted to reject.
In a statement this morning, Criminal Bar Association chair Angela Rafferty said: “This outcome is neither a defeat nor a victory. The criminal Bar has faced degradation and despair and it still does. This is a step forward. We must all ensure we do not take any more steps back.”
In a tweet responding to the vote, leading criminal law practitioner Andrew Keogh, who runs CrimeLine, characterised it as the Bar voting for “jam today”.
Ms Rafferty said the vote did not mean that “the anger and disillusionment has gone away. Indeed, it is exceptionally strong. The criminal Bar is not going to be quiet”.
She continued: “Investment in the AGFS scheme is the first step in a long road to rehabilitation for the criminal justice system. The damage done in recent decades will not be undone in weeks, or perhaps years.
“This proposal is the beginning and not the end of our campaign to improve the broken system we all work in every day. We still face exceptional difficulties, as do our solicitor colleagues.
“This will not fix the terrible conditions, the unhealthy and unreasonably onerous working practices and the general decrepitude. However, if we consider it a start we can build on it.
“The fact we have achieved this small gain shows that we as a profession are both capable and motivated to unite and unite we will if things do not continue to change in the near future.”
Ms Rafferty said the association was now launching a campaign “to improve the lot of prosecutors”.
She explained: “For too long prosecutors have tolerated the intolerable too. We must work towards changing this as well as the continued investment in AGFS in the future.
“Without the commitment and skill of those who prosecute the system would collapse quickly. Disclosure is still a huge issue. We make a commitment to you now to mirror our efforts on AGFS towards prosecution work.”
In a joint statement, Bar Council chair Andrew Walker QC and chair-elect Richard Atkins QC said: “This vote will bring action to an end in the short term, but let there be no doubt that the closeness of the vote reflects the very real frustration, anger and concern for the future across the criminal Bar.
“Those voting to accept the Ministry of Justice’s proposal did not do so because they thought that it was a long-term solution, any more than did those who voted to reject it. The changes are just a patch repair.”
They said a wider campaign was now the plan. “It must take in civil and family legal aid, and prosecution fees, as well as the full spectrum of criminal legal aid. But more than that, it must address the whole of the justice system, its lack of priority in government, and its desperate need for proper, increased funding.”
Neither statement made a mention of supporting solicitors in their campaign to increase their fees – in his response to the vote, Law Society president Joe Egan said: “[We have] produced clear evidence of the imminent collapse of the criminal legal aid solicitors’ market. Despite that, the Ministry of Justice is simply not addressing the root problems.
“All through the barristers’ strike, solicitors have kept working – this commitment to the rule of the law has again gone unrewarded.
“The Law Society has already applied for a judicial review of the litigators’ graduated fee scheme cuts which, if successful, will only be a band-aid on the gaping wound of the underfunded criminal justice system.
“We need a change of approach by the government. If that doesn’t happen they alone will be to blame for the collapse in confidence in our justice system that will surely follow.”