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Barrister claims criminal bar is 'Cinderella' of legal world.

Byline: Dan Warburton Chief Reporter dan.warburton@ncjmedia.co.uk

AN EMINENT barrister today dismissed claims legal professionals were "fat cats" as he levelled criticism at Chris Grayling's legal aid cuts.

Barristers from across the region staged a half-day walk-out yesterday for the first time in history over Government plans to save PS220m a year from the legal aid budget by 2018-19.

The Justice Secretary claims the reform could lead to a saving of up to a third in long complex trials.

But John Elvidge QC, leader of the North Eastern Circuit, accused ministers of drawing up "cynical policies" which "consistently misled the public about the true level of turnover for self employed barristers practising criminal law".

Mr Elvidge, who is also head of Dere Street Barristers, said repeated cuts were forcing experienced barristers from the profession and putting justice in jeopardy.

He said: "The Government's fiscal policies have caused, and continue to cause, experienced barristers with years of experience of acting for the prosecution and on behalf of defendants to abandon criminal practice.

"They have also inhibited the recruitment and retention of new talent. If the current legal aid proposals are implemented the inevitable loss of quality advocates will increase the likelihood of miscarriages of justice occurring; of criminals escaping punishment and innocent men, women and children being convicted.

"In those cases, access to justice will have been denied and the pain suffered by the victims of injustice, and their families, will be a source of shame to our legal system."

The Ministry of Justice claim England and Wales has one of the most expensive legal systems in the world. They say 1,200 barristers working full time on publicly-funded legal aid cases earned PS100,000 each last year with six others picking up more than PS500,000 each. But Mr Elvidge said wages earned by some of the region's most senior barristers was as low as PS15,000 after expenses. He described the criminal bar as the "Cinderella" of the legal profession and said it was the "poor relation" of commercial law. Dismissing the label of barristers as "fat cats", he said: "It isn't just newly qualified barristers, some senior professionals are earning low levels of income. The reality is that the fees that are actually received before income tax is paid are close to half of what the Government claims after payment of VAT, staff, office, insurance, library and travel costs.

"There will be a lack of skilled advocates to present cases to the standard that the public expects and deserves.

"What this really is about is the sustainability of the criminal bar. Very experienced advocates can present serious cases and if that is undermined then it will inevitably lead to people being convicted when they are innocent, people being released when they are guilty and all the misery that comes with it."

A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: "At around PS2bn a year we have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world, and it would remain very generous even after reform."

She added: "We entirely agree lawyers should be paid fairly for their work, and believe our proposals do just that. We also agree legal aid is a vital part of our justice system - that's why we have to find efficiencies to ensure it remains sustainable and available to those most in need of a lawyer."

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John Elvidge QC, leader of the North Eastern Circuit
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Publication:Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)
Date:Jan 7, 2014
Words:575
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