Criminal Bar votes to call off fee dispute but the fight goes on

Criminal barristers voted by a narrow margin to accept the government’s fee offer and end its protest action.

In the ballot, 3,038 barristers voted by 1,566 (51.55%) to 1,472 (48.45%) to accept the offer to put £15m into the revised Advocates’ Graduated Fee Scheme (AGFS) with a 1% fee rise in April 2019.

Since the reformed AGFS payments were introduced in April most criminal barristers have refused to take new cases. Moves to up their action were put on hold pending a vote on the government’s offer.

Angela Rafferty QC, Chair of the Criminal Bar Association, said: ‘Whilst the majority wishes to accept the proposal, it cannot be said that the anger and disillusionment has gone away. Indeed it is exceptionally strong. The criminal Bar is not going to be quiet.’

She said investment in the AGFS scheme was the ‘first step in a long road to rehabilitation’ for the criminal justice system. She said: ‘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.’

Rafferty added: ‘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.’

She announced a campaign to improve the lot of prosecutors, whom she said for too long ‘have tolerated the intolerable too’. The failings within the Crown Prosecution Service were highlighted again when the Director of Public Prosecutions, Alison Saunders, revealed that almost 50 rape and sexual assault cases had been discontinued due to disclosure failings.

Bar Chair, Andrew Walker QC said the vote would end action in the short term, but added: ‘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.’

He said: ‘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.

‘The situation in the criminal justice system remains dire. Addressing the crisis is still urgent.’

He warned that if sufficient change was not seen, ‘barristers will no doubt consider once more what steps they can take to make sure that our voice is heard’.

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