LAWYERS in the North-East will take industrial action for the first time in their history as a row over legal aid cuts reaches its next level.
In an unprecedented move, barristers and solicitors will refuse to attend court on Monday - and face being disciplined for their stance against the Government.
Organisers are hoping the action will involve up to 40 lawyers at Teesside Crown Court in Middlesbrough and a similar number at Newcastle Crown Court.
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The Criminal Bar Association describe it as "a momentous day" and say the planned cuts are the biggest threat to the country's legal system in 400 years.
Members argue that the fees they receive are already so low that many of the best lawyers are leaving criminal work to specialise in other areas.
North-East barrister Ian West admitted that it is a difficult task to persuade the public that he and his colleagues are not well-paid.
But he explained: "Not all professional footballers earn £250,000 a week just because Cristiano Ronaldo does. Some play for Hartlepool United.
"That's the difference between criminal legal aid lawyers and City of London commercial solicitors - they are simply one two different planets.
"People ought to be concerned about the damage that is being done to the fabric of criminal justice legal aid services because it does affect them.
"Criminal lawyers who defend are the same people who prosecute, so they represent the man in the street, and help keep the streets safe for all of us."
Lord Faulks, QC, the new Minister of State for the Ministry of Justice in the House of Lords, has come out in support of those opposing change.
He said: “It is beyond argument that criminal barristers are, for the most part, very moderately paid . . . the criminal Bar is a profession in crisis.
“I fear that the fat has been so far removed from the carcass of criminal legal aid that these further cuts really threaten our justice system."
Lawyers will gather outside both court centres in the region on Monday morning and will not take on any cases until the afternoon session begins.
Mr West, from Fountain Chambers in Middlesbrough, said: "There are 7,000 criminal barristers up and down the country and we are hoping most take part.
"By not turning up for a case, you are probably committing an offence of professional misconduct and you could be disciplined if somebody complains.
"We are working on the basis that if that does happen, they are going to have to build a very big dock to get us all in it. It doesn't faze me."