Thousands of criminal case lawyers are not attending courts in a number of cities in England and Wales, in protest at planned £220m cuts to legal aid.
The Criminal Bar Association said the unprecedented action came with anger at “boiling point”.
Lawyers argue the cuts could see their fees fall by up to 30%, reducing the representation available to defendants.
The Ministry of Justice said efficiencies were necessary to ensure legal aid remained “sustainable”.
Justice minister Shailesh Vara said: “We are living in difficult economic times and lawyers are not immune from the economic climate.”
Criminal lawyers are being careful not to call the half-day action a strike, but are protesting against government plans, being phased in from April, to cut the annual sum spent on legal aid by £220m.
The Criminal Bar Association said the action would not jeopardise trials, but warned that if the pay dispute was not resolved, trials due to start after April, including those for murder and rape, could be put at risk.
‘Line in sand’
At the Old Bailey, a jury was sent out to consider its verdict in a terrorism trial in front of empty court, due to the protest.
Judge Gerald Gordon told the jury in court 16 of the Old Bailey: ” You can see the rather lonely position I am in. ”
The Criminal Bar Association said there was a mass “non-attendance” at courts in cities including London, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Birmingham, Newcastle, Winchester, Bristol and Cardiff. The main focus of the protest is at Southwark Crown Court, in London.
Lawyers said they were “not prepared to work at hourly rates lower than the national minimum wage”.
The association said legal aid cuts had caused a recent complex fraud trial to be put in jeopardy because 17 sets of chambers had declined to accept the case for four of the eight defendants.
Nigel Lithman QC, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, said: “A line has to be drawn in the sand before it’s too late. The cuts pose the most serious threat to the British legal system in more than 400 years.
“The government says it is tough on crime, but is stripping the criminal justice system of anyone able to adequately prosecute serious criminals or defend those falsely accused.
“We merely seek a pay freeze. What could be more reasonable than that? I have offered to engage with the lord chancellor as to how to make savings across the system.”
Complex cases targeted
A final consultation on the proposed cuts to legal aid in criminal work in England and Wales was held last year.
Legal aid costs taxpayers about £2bn every year – half goes on criminal defence and the rest on civil cases.
Government proposals include cutting fees in complex, high-cost cases by 30%, and in other crown court work by up to 18%.
The Treasury Counsel – an elite group of barristers appointed by the attorney general to prosecute the most serious crimes – has criticised the plans.
It was joined by the Bar Council, which represents barristers in England and Wales, and the Law Society, which represents solicitors, also in England and Wales.
A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: “At around £2bn a year we have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world, and it would remain very generous even after reform.
“Latest figures show more than 1,200 barristers judged to be working full time on taxpayer-funded criminal work received £100,000 each in fee income last year, with six barristers receiving more than £500,000 each.
“We entirely agree lawyers should be paid fairly for their work, and believe our proposals do just that.
“We also agree legal aid is a vital part of our justice system; that’s why we have to find efficiencies to ensure it remains sustainable and available to those most in need of a lawyer.”
Lawyers dispute the figures on fee income.
The shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said the “unprecedented action” showed relations between the legal profession and David Cameron’s government “have collapsed as a result of policies which could restrict access to our courts to only those who can afford it”.