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LAWYERS MAY STRIKE OVER LEGAL AID FEES; EXCLUSIVE.

Byline: CHARLOTTE WARD

CRIMINAL courts could grind to a halt in the Midlands next month with lawyers threatening to strike over pay.

Birmingham barristers are considering 'withdrawing their labour' in protest at Government proposals to reduce their fees for legal aid cases by up to 20 per cent.

Militant members are planning to refuse to take on cases at Wolverhampton Crown Court in February when the new pay proposals are piloted in the city.

If the strike does go ahead there could be severe consequences for the courts system -with up to 100 hearings a day being delayed.

The news comes after the UK Bar Council unanimously agreed that barristers do not have to accept legal aid cases if they consider the fee is not enough.

Presently, some criminal barristers earn as little as pounds 13 an hour for prosecuting or defending legal aid cases -less than a qualified plumber.

ABar Society spokesman told the Sunday Mercury: 'There is a stereotype that lawyers are over-paid fat cats but in reality legal aid barristers are paid as little as pounds 13 an hour. That is not a lot considering they have undertaken four years of studying for legal qualification and one year further training in a practise.

'It is up to individual barristers to decide what action they will take but we understand the strength of feeling.'

In 2000/1 the Lord Chancellor proposed a 10 to 20 per cent cut in fees for legal aid cases in criminal and family courts.

Although the Government later promised to review the cuts, no adjustments were made. The Department for Constitutional Affairs is now looking at restructuring the way barristers are paid for legal aid work -and some lawyers fear could it mean more cuts in their wages.

Its plans are to be piloted in Wolverhampton, Essex, Bedfordshire, North Wales, Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire.

Amember of the Birmingham Bar, which covers many crown court cases at Wolverhampton, said: 'The negotiations are continuing so it is premature to say what action will be taken.

'We have been told that a pilot scheme in Wolverhampton is looking at changing the work process and speeding up courts to make them more efficient. But there is also concern that fees could be reduced.

'We have been asked to take it on trust that fees won't be reduced. But should things change the Birmingham Bar are considering withdrawing their labour.'

Malcolm Fowler of the Law Society Reform Board said: 'In 10 years there has been no substantial pay rise for legal aid cases and now the fees could be reduced again.

'The Bar have managed to make a living in prosecuting and defending but if the Government continues to reduce fees then their survival is under threat.

'The Birmingham Bar can be quite militant so they may well decide to go on strike.'

Richard Collins, Director of the Criminal Defence Service and involved in the amendments to legal aid fees, said he believes members of the Birmingham Bar are worrying unnecessarily.

'It is not necessarily about changing the fees but shifting them around so they get paid earlier rather than later. It is not to reduce the fees but to improve efficiency.'

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BATTLEGROUND: Wolverhampton Crown Court could see a strike
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Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:Dec 28, 2003
Words:545
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