High emotion and anger over the Criminal Bar Association’s (CBA) decision to strike a deal with the Government on legal aid cuts has seen barristers given until next Wednesday 9 April to vote to accept the deal or take further industrial action, as further legal challenges were also brought this week to the controversial Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates (QASA).
The ballot comes after the CBA on Friday 28 March announced that the Government had agreed to postpone the 6% cuts to the advocates graduated fee scheme until next summer, in exchange for the CBA’s suspension of the ‘no returns’ policy, under which barristers have been refusing to co-operate and stand in for one another, as they normally do to ensure the smooth running of the justice system.
In scenes reminiscent of those played out so recently with the Law Society, some members of the Bar have expressed anger and a lack of confidence in the CBA leadership, using social media to vent at so-called ‘secret meetings’ with the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).
The Criminal Law Solicitors Association Committee chair Bill Waddington said in an open letter: ‘We are not going to hide the anger felt by our committee or our memberships dismay that despite repeated assurances that they would not make a “separate peace” the Bar has done so.’
In an equally emotional ‘Monday Message’ from CBA chairman Nigel Lithman on 31 March, which announced the forthcoming ballot, Lithman sent thanks to supporters but added: ‘To those who have chosen instead to vilify, insult and abuse – whether through social media or direct to my email – or as in the case of one chambers so quick to publish a spiteful “don’t blame us, we didn’t vote for him”, the lack of professionalism has been shocking.’
Barristers will be asked to give a yes or no answer to the question: ‘Do you wish to continue “no returns” and days of action until all the cuts and reductions in (solicitors) contracts are abandoned?’
If the majority vote ‘yes’, this will mean the deal with the MoJ is belatedly rejected, which is likely to spell further action by barristers, who are concerned that if the work of solicitors dries up, their own caseload will suffer.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday 2 April the four claimants in the long-running challenge to QASA met the deadline to enter their request for an oral hearing to appeal the dismissal of a judicial review over QASA’s introduction.
In February, the High Court refused application for permission to appeal to the Court of Appeal and ordered the claimants to pay £112,500 towards the costs of the LSB and £37,500 towards those of the Bar Standards Board.
It followed a High Court ruling in January that found the QASA scheme, under which barristers may only accept trials on a par with their assessed and graded advocacy abilities, did not constitute a breach of European law. It further held the QASA falls within the legitimate exercise of the powers of the Legal Services Board (LSB) and the three regulatory bodies that submitted it to the LSB for approval.
That lengthy judgment handed down by the president of the Queen’s Bench Division Sir Brian Leveson, rejected each of the challenges to the QASA scheme advanced by the claimants – barristers Katherine Lumsdon, Rufus Taylor, David Howker QC and Christopher Hewertson.