British lawyers in wigs picket outside UK courthouses to protest cuts to legal aid

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LONDON – Hundreds of British lawyers — many dressed in traditional white curled wigs and black gowns — swapped courtrooms for picket lines Monday to protest planned cuts to legal aid.

Cases were disrupted at courts including London’s famous Old Bailey criminal court as barristers in England and Wales staged their first national walkout. Only one of 18 courts at the Old Bailey managed to hold a sitting during the half-day strike.

The British government, which has slashed billions from public spending in the name of deficit reduction, plans to cut lawyers’ fees to reduce the legal aid budget by 220 million pounds ($360 million) a year through 2019.

The government says Britain’s legal-aid system, which costs about 2 billion pounds a year, is among the world’s most expensive. It insists barristers are well paid — with 1,200 receiving 100,000 pounds or more in income from legal aid fees last year — and says their fees will remain “generous.”

But the Criminal Bar Association said the average legal aid earnings of barristers — lawyers who argue in court — was around 36,000 pounds ($59,000) after services tax and expenses. Lawyers say the cuts could see fees fall by as much as 30 per cent, which they say will discourage attorneys from taking criminal cases, in which defendants often rely on state funding for legal representation.

Protesters said many lawyers don’t fit the “fat cat” image of popular imagination.

“I’m sent to cover a number of cases at the magistrates’ court and if, for example, it’s a bail hearing I would expect to get paid 50 pounds, even if it takes a whole day, and that’s before tax … and travel expenses are taken into account,” said Tony Massiah, a 26-year-old lawyer protesting outside London’s Southwark Crown Court.

“A lot of my colleagues I finished bar school with have already left. They’ve gone into teaching or become solicitors as they simply can’t survive.”

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