CRIMINAL courts in the region were severely disrupted when barristers and solicitors joined an unprecedented national protest against Government plans to slash legal aid fees.

As many as 50 barristers and solicitors gathered outside Teesside Crown Court as work there ground to a halt this morning.

At the same time, dozens of supporters demonstrated on the steps of Newcastle Crown Court holding banners and placards.

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Ian West, from Fountain Chambers in Middlesbrough, said that he was "very pleased" with the support for the action.

"We hope the message is finally getting through to Chris Grayling," he said.

"All of our opposition to his plans thus far has had no impact."

Justice Secretary Mr Grayling controversially wants to cut fees as part of a bid to slash £220m from the legal aid budget by 2018-19.

But his proposals have angered criminal lawyers who say they could force many in their profession to leave to do civil work.

The Ministry of Justice says that 1,200 barristers working full time on publicly-funded legal aid cases earned £100,000 each last year.

The Government figures are also said to show that six others picked up more than 500,000 each last year for the same type of work.

But lawyers' leader Nigel Lithman, said the same statistics showed that the average barrister on the cases earned about £36,000 each.

The chairman of the Criminal Bar Association said: "There are simply going to be no people of any ability prepared to do criminal legal aid work."

He highlighted the case of one barrister who earned just £13,680 in her second year as a lawyer and added: "The protest is the first in the history of the criminal bar. That it is necessary in order to try and prevent the slide of the criminal justice system into chaos and the criminal bar into oblivion makes it a sad day."

Mr West said the protests had been mirrored across the country and added: "It is a sad day when it has come to the point where professional people have no line of communication with politicians.

"We wanted the Government to know that we object to what they are doing, and we wanted to bring to the attention of the public what they are about to do to the criminal justice system."

Newcastle barrister Caroline Goodwin said there had been a good response to the protest from members of the bar and solicitors, as well as members of the probation service.

She added: "Junior members of the future bar are no longer coming into criminal practice, because it is not considered financially viable to work in this particular area - and the quality will reduce.

"This will have a definite impact on the public, as those who prosecute the most serious cases will not be available.

"Those who defend also prosecute and across the board there is going to be a reduction in quality.

"It will mean those who should be convicted could potentially go free and you will probably find miscarriages of justice where innocent people requiring defence are convicted."