Today in the UK, criminal barristers stopped work for the morning. (Don’t call it a strike.) The non-strike was prompted by the government, falsely representing the criminal bar as well-paid fat cats (the Minister of Justice says “average £100,000…I mean, £84,000”; the truth is closer to £37,000, and criminal barristers’ fees are already down 40% from the late 90s), proposing to cut £220 million from the indigent defense budget. Last October the Ministry of Justice had, as part of the same cost-saving package, proposed bribing criminal barristers for guilty pleas.
Lawyers defending indigents accused are an easy target for budget cuts. The narrative that keeps all politicians in power is one of fear. For example, “be afraid; this is a dangerous world; I can keep you safe.” Cutting police and prosecutorial budgets does not reinforce this narrative, so money coming out of the criminal justice system comes out of defenders’ budgets.
As in Britain, criminal-defense lawyers in America are not fat cats. There are a few getting rich and some making a damn good living, but the great majority are plodding along. According to the State Bar, Texas criminal-defense lawyers’ median income is $73,276—a good middle-class living, sure, but half are making less than that, and those at the median are making much less than the median income for Americans with professional degrees.
A few years ago Harris County lawyers taking appointments took a pay cut from the county. (Here are the ludicrously low rates for court-appointed counsel in Harris County. You can bet that outside lawyers doing civil work for the county aren’t working for $85 an hour.) Last year private lawyers taking appointments in federal court took a 12% pay cut to save Federal Public Defenders’ Offices from layoffs. Of the two options—PD layoffs, or a CJA pay cut—the latter was better, but the choice should never have been necessary. Both of those cuts went down with nary a protest.
The endgame of pay cuts for criminal lawyers is the end of the independent criminal-defense bar. As Lucy Reed writes in It’s not about the lawyers – its about YOU!: ((Note to Self: 2014 BPOTY nomination.))
There are already firms and chambers which have closed and cases where defendants have been unable to find a lawyer to represent them. At the moment they are few and far between. But that barristers (and solicitors) have been on “strike” today in such numbers, exposing themselves to potential complaints, disciplinary action and contempt of court is a pretty clear indicator that things are getting desperate. The bar are not really into histrionics and nor are they known for their radicalism. They believe in process, in responding to consultations with reasoned, evidence based argument. They believe that process has broken down.
You don’t need to like barristers or solicitors much. And they don’t need to be paid a gazillion pounds to do a good job. But you do need to understand that this IS about you. And about your legitimate expectation of a defence lawyer who will do a good job when you need them.