THOSE finding themselves in court may have to represent themselves, as striking lawyers refuse to take on new cases.

Swindon barristers have refused to take on legal aid cases sent to them since April 1.

The lawyers, who are qualified to speak on behalf of clients in top courts, are protesting what they see as cuts to the justice system and a new set of fees paid out for legal aid work and introduced last month. It is part of a nationwide strike.

A Swindon law boss accused the government of dismantling the criminal justice system.

Stuart Matthews, co-founder of legal firm Reeds, which defends many of those appearing in Swindon’s courts, backs the barristers’ strike. He said: “You look at the different factors coming together – cutting legal aid to the bone, the underfunding of the police force and the lack of experience in the Crown Prosecution Service – we’ve given up our criminal justice system. It’s quite extraordinary.

“A country is nothing without a properly funded criminal justice system to allow those without money to receive justice at the hands of a massively powerful state.”

His message to solicitor general Robert Buckland, MP for South Swindon and one of the government’s most senior law ministers, was stark: “Properly fund the criminal justice system.”

This week, the strike hit Swindon’s crown court when a 19-year-old man was left unrepresented after lawyers refused to take on his case.

Zakariya Sulaimin, from London, appeared by video link from prison facing charges relating to selling heroin and crack cocaine in Town Gardens in November last year. He has separately pleaded guilty to selling drugs in Norwich in February.

Sulaimin admitted to the Swindon charges after taking advice from his solicitors. However, there was no lawyer to represent him in court.

Adjourning the case until Friday, May 18, Judge Robert Pawson told Sulaimin: “There is, at the moment, industrial action by the bar. Barristers are not accepting cases where the legal aid certificate was issued after April 1.

“As a result you are not represented today, you don’t have a lawyer here today.

“As I understand it you have pleaded guilty to drug supply matters in Norwich. You are awaiting sentence.”

The Bar Council, which represents barristers and is coordinating the strike, said the Ministry of Justice’s budget had been slashed over the past decade. A spokesman said: “The effects in every area are becoming ever clearer: courts and prisons in a deplorable state of repair, leading to unacceptable conditions, litigants struggling to deal with their own cases without legal help in the most trying of circumstances, overloaded courts and judges, increasing delays and judicial morale at rock bottom.”

Responding, Mr Buckland said: “The new fees structure was jointly devised and approved by both the Bar Council and the Ministry of Justice, so this is a concerning state of affairs.”

He blamed spending by the Labour government for the cuts. Stressing that legal aid was still available for criminal crown court cases, Mr Buckland added: “I am in constant contact with legal practitioners and am happy to make sure their message gets across to colleagues at the Ministry of Justice.”

A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice said: “We greatly value the work of criminal advocates which is precisely why we worked closely with the Criminal Bar Association and others when designing the scheme.

“We are spending £9m more than the scheme originally consulted on and built into the calculations an extra £9m risk, bringing the total investment to £18 million.

“Under these reforms cases such as murder, serious violence, terrorism and sexual offences will all receive greater levels of funding, and two thirds of advocates will benefit financially.”