The Criminal Bar Association (CBA) has responded to growing anger over its 'sell out' deal with the Ministry of Justice over legal aid cuts, announcing that it will ballot its members on whether to continue their protest action.
The deal, revealed yesterday, postpones the 6% cuts to the advocates graduated fee scheme until after the general election in return for an agreement from the bar leaders to end any further protest action over the cuts.
Chambers and individual barristers took to Twitter and web forums to voice their dismay at the deal.
Ian West, a barrister at Middlesbrough's Fountain Chambers, resigned from the CBA executive committee in protest.
In a resignation letter, he told CBA chair Nigel Lithman QC (pictured) that the leadership had made a 'grave mistake' and that the agreement made with the MoJ was 'entirely the wrong decision, short-sighted and unnecessary, and one I cannot stand, or defend'.
Henry Blaxland QC said in a statement issued on behalf of criminal barristers at London's Garden Court chambers: 'We wish to express our dismay at the deal negotiated by the CBA over the cuts in criminal legal aid. We had urged the CBA to support the action called by solicitors and probation officers next week.
'Instead the CBA has, without consulting the membership, negotiated a deal with the MoJ, which leaves our colleagues to fight alone. This has provoked a great deal of anger at Garden Court and has caused some members to resign their membership of the CBA.'
In her letter of resignation from the CBA, Brenda Campbell of the same set said: 'In exchange for a 15-month reprieve, we have abandoned our solicitor colleagues at a uniquely united and strong moment in our history. We've abandoned our future clients to an uncertain but almost certainly unjust future. We've abandoned any hope of a diverse, vibrant and skilled profession and have diluted our credibility in society.'
She added: 'This is not a victory for our justice system. It is a cancer fought temporarily into remission only to return in a year's time when our immune system will be significantly weakened.'
Solicitors, who are set to stage a two-day protest alongside probation staff next week, claimed the bar leaders had allowed Grayling to 'divide and rule' the profession, which has shown a high level of unity in its opposition to the fee cuts.
Chairman of the Criminal Law Solicitors' Association Bill Waddington accused the bar leadership of using the unity of the profession to 'pursue self-interest in a separate secret negotiation'.
Responding to the criticism, Lithman issued a statement today saying the CBA had received a 'sufficient number' of calls for it to be required to constitute an extraordinary general meeting, forcing a vote on the deal.
CBA members will be asked: 'Do you wish to continue no returns and days of action until all the cuts and reduction in contracts are abandoned?'
Lithman sought to explain why the CBA had agreed to the course of action, denying it was a 'jobs for the boys deal', instead insisting that it protected the junior bar from the worst excesses of the cuts. He said the MoJ 'threw in a very large flannel, if not a towel, by way of submission'.
Lithman told his members that the Bar Council vice-chair, CBA and circuit leaders met the MoJ on Tuesday evening.
'There was no mediation and no negotiation. They presented us with a non-negotiable and non-divisible one-off deal - if not accepted, there would be no more offers.'
Lithman said the leaders were given a 'two-day window' to decide whether 'to continue to expose juniors to the damaging cuts that would be introduced in July'.
The decision to accept the offer, he said, was made in an emergency meeting of the CBA executive with the 'overwhelming' support of the CBA executive and circuit leaders and heads of chambers who were consulted.
'It was not practical to ballot the bar in the time frame,' he argued. He told his members: 'We genuinely believed we could get you no better.'
He told the Gazette the deal, which kicked the cuts past the general election, would mean they 'will disappear forever'.
Responding to criticism that he had betrayed solicitors, he told the Gazette: 'I can't ignore the fact that my only mandate is to represent criminal barristers.' But he insisted that many solicitor higher court advocates will also benefit from the deal.
In his statement, Lithman said: 'We have not abandoned the solicitors, we recognise their plight and will continue to support their campaign in all practical ways that we can, for example we will not undertake their work during their days of action.'
He said the leadership of the solicitor associations had been strong, but had 'not secured the same level of unity of purpose and resolve among their membership as has been shown by the bar.'
Desmond Hudson, chief executive of the Law Society, pointed out that the government's reviews will apply 'precisely and equally' to the second tranche of solicitor legal aid cuts, which would also not take effect until June next year. 'If an election stops the cuts it will stop all the June 2015 cuts,' he said.