Maura McGowan QC, Chairman of the Bar, launched the Bar’s Say No to Cut-Price Justice campaign at the beginning of May. Encouraging every barrister to write personally to their MP, the Bar Council released its Legal aid core case (see box, below), together with a guide to producing a “bespoke lobbying letter”. Two online petitions are currently live, which all are urged to support. Save Legal Aid (, promoted by the Bar Council and the campaigning organisation 38 Degrees, carried over 9,500 signatures as Counsel went to press. The Save UK Justice e-petition,, set up by Exeter solicitor Rachel Bentley, has over 49,000 signatures and will, if it reaches 100,000, referred to the Backbench Business Committee of the House of Commons, which may allocate the issue time for a debate.

The results of a poll, commissioned by the Bar Council, countered the consultation paper’s assertion that the public had lost faith in the legal aid system. ComRes interviewed over 2,000 adults and found that 71% of the British public were concerned the cuts could lead to innocent people being convicted; and 67% agreed that legal aid is a price worth paying for living in a fair society.

Opposition in Parliament grew steadily. An early day motion tabled by MPs on 8 May called for “this ill-thought through reform” to be abandoned. In widely praised speeches, Baroness Deech, Chairman of the Bar Standards Board, and Lord Thomas of Gressford spoke against the cuts in a House of Lords debate on 9 May. The Commons Justice Select Committee has also indicated that it will add its scrutiny to the proposals.

As the message hit the national media, and the Criminal Bar Association (CBA), led by Michael Turner QC, was vocal in its opposition, the Ministry of Justice endured rigorous cross-examination during consultation events held around the country. The Lord Chancellor has met personally with representatives from both branches of the profession, but not yet the CBA. In a meeting with the Circuit Leaders on 23 April, the Lord Chancellor said that he was open to alternative suggestions, would not “bank” these whilst proceeding with the cuts already proposed, and did not plan to come back to the Bar for further savings. However, according to a note of the meeting circulated by the Leaders, he sounded a warning shot: that if the Bar does not “co-operate”, price competitive tendering (PCT) could be introduced into the Crown Courts.

More recently, the Lord Chancellor told the Law Society Gazette that in the absence of a “stunning alternative”, PCT will go ahead in some form. “There are clearly people in the legal profession who are very unhappy,” he acknowledged, but “we’ve had plenty of conversations with people who intend to bid for the contracts.” Defending the abolition of a defendant’s choice of lawyer, he added: “I don’t believe that most people who find themselves in our criminal justice system are great connoisseurs of legal skills.”

A Save Legal Aid demonstration opposite the Palace of Westminster is set for 22 May, addressed by, amongst others, Clive Stafford Smith and Gerry Conlan of the Guildord Four. This was due to be followed by a mass rally of 1,000 barristers and solicitors, described by the Criminal Law Solicitors Association as “the largest meeting of solicitors and barristers in history”, with others taking time out to work on their consultation responses, and leaving many courts and police stations on emergency cover. A month earlier, a ‘day of education’ organised by the Northern Circuit disrupted Crown Court hearings in the north of England, as over 400 barristers stayed away from court in protest against the threatened cuts. In a statement issued just prior to the April action, the senior judiciary said that it would remove a case from the list if “an application is made on properly arguable grounds” and would take steps to minimise the impact on witnesses.

Lord Neuberger, however, has cautioned against direct action. In the Harbour Litigation Annual Funding Lecture at Gray’s Inn on 8 May, he spoke of the grave impact of cuts but also an advocate’s duty to the legal system, which “extends to helping ensure that the system functions properly”.

Bar Council-Law Society: shared principles
1. The proposal to abolish freedom of choice of representation is an unacceptable inroad into the basic rights of those facing criminal charges;
2. The imposition of Price Competitive Tendering with the price cap will make it uneconomic for firms to provide quality services, leading to a wholesale exodus from the market;
3. The fixed contract sizes will make it impossible for smaller firms to remain in the market and provide no incentive for firms to compete on quality; and
4. The flattening of fee rate so that a solicitor is paid as much for a guilty plea as for a potentially complex case where a client is not guilty will introduce perverse incentives and a danger of miscarriages of justice.

The Bar Council’s Legal aid core case: “Citizens will no longer be equal before the law” if civil representation is further withdrawn. All people should be entitled to choose a lawyer to represent them based on quality, “not just be allocated one on the basis of whoever can do the job for the lowest price”. Price competitive tendering will inhibit competition, making suppliers “processors of justice” incentivised to “do the minimum work at the lowest acceptable standard”. Savings will be outweighed by the costs and knock-on effects of awarding contracts to organisations with “little experience in the law”, in tendering bureaucracy, poorly managed cases, appeals and miscarriages of justice. The “harshest pay cuts anywhere in public services” will quickly erode the independent Bar, “which has long provided a constitutional bulwark against injustice”. Advice deserts will spread and a national network of law firms will be destroyed. Aspirations for a more diverse profession and judiciary will be critically undermined.