LONDON (Reuters) - British trial lawyers staged their first ever strike on Monday to protest against government cuts of up to 30 percent to legal fees which they said would drive away talent from the profession and endanger the criminal justice system.
Trials across England and Wales were severely disrupted as hundreds of barristers in grey wigs, white bow ties and long black gowns, the attire they normally wear in court, joined noisy demonstrations outside the courthouses instead.
Nigel Lithman, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association which organised the half-day protest, said it was the first time barristers had withdrawn their labour in the history of a profession dating back to the 15th century.
"The very future of our criminal justice system is in jeopardy by the imposition of savage cuts to funding," Lithman told a crowd of about 100 protesters outside London's Southwark Crown Court.
Some of the bewigged protesters held up placards with slogans such as "Save British Justice" and "No Legal Aid Cuts".
Inside the building, most courtrooms were empty. It was a similar picture across the river Thames at the Old Bailey, the country's most famous criminal court, where the courtroom hosting a high-profile trial centred on phone-hacking by journalists was deserted.
The government argues that its proposed cuts to legal aid, whereby the state pays the legal fees of those unable to afford lawyers themselves, are reasonable and will ensure that the system remains financially sustainable.
"At around 2 billion pounds a year we have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world and it would remain very generous even after reform," the Ministry of Justice said in a statement.
The proposed reforms, which are due to come into force for trials starting from April onwards, would reduce the legal aid budget to an annual 1.5 billion pounds.
The cuts are just one element of a broad government cost-cutting programme aimed at reducing Britain's budget deficit.
Barristers say the latest cuts are the final straw after legal aid funding for criminal cases has already been squeezed by 40 percent since 1997 by successive governments.
Outside the Old Bailey, senior barrister Mukul Chawla told a large crowd of protesters that ever-decreasing fees for legal aid work would drive away young talent and ultimately mean inadequate legal representation in court.
If the government cuts continue, Chawla said, "the guilty will go unpunished and the innocent will be wrongly convicted."
The government published figures last week that sought to defend the legal aid cuts by showing that barristers were handsomely paid. For example, it said that more than 1,200 barristers judged to be working full-time on taxpayer-funded criminal work received 100,000 pounds each in fees last year.
Chawla accused the government of misleading the public, pointing out that the figures included VAT which is passed on to state coffers and did not take into account the high expenses faced by barristers, who are self-employed.
He said that across the profession, average earnings after tax and expenses were 27,000 pounds to 37,000 pounds per year, a relatively modest income for highly qualified lawyers.
Editing by Gareth Jones