Criminal barristers yesterday voted in favour of plans to strike against the government, following a long-running dispute over legal aid fees.
Barristers who work in criminal law are set to stage a series of court walkouts, after 81.5 per cent of the 2,055 barristers who voted in the Criminal Bar Association’s ballot came out in support of plans for the strike.
If no deal is struck, the strike will see barristers hold a two-day walkout on the 27-28 June, with a view to upping the length by one day each week, until week four, at which point the strikes will continue to run for alternating weeks.
The strike comes as barristers are calling for a 25 per cent increase in legal aid fees, after the government offered a 15 per cent increase in March.
The offer came after an independent review by Sir Christopher Bellamy said the 15 per cent fee hike would be the “minimum” sum needed to nurse “the system of criminal legal aid back to health after years of neglect”.
Justice minister James Cartlidge said the result was “disappointing” as he said the government’s 15 per cent pay increase would see a “typical criminal barrister” earn around £7,000 more each year.
However, a CBA spokesperson said the strike is in response to a “lethal cocktail of sliding pay and worsening conditions,” that has seen criminal barristers’ real earnings drop 28 per cent since 2006.
The CBA has said the government’s proposed 15 per cent fee increase will be swallowed by inflation, as they point to figures showing barristers in their first three years of practice earn a median income of just £12,200 a year.
The action is set to worsen the UK’s Crown Court backlogs, after Covid-19 saw the case backlog hit record highs of more than 60,000 cases last year.
The departure of hundreds of criminal barristers from the profession due to the worsening conditions has in turn exacerbated the Crown Court backlog, according to the CBA, which points to figures showing 576 trials were postponed last year due to a lack of barristers.
CBA chair Jo Sidhu QC said the 25 per cent increase is needed to “reverse the exodus” of prosecution and defence barristers from the UK’s criminal justice system, amid claims the 15 per cent increase will be swallowed by inflation.
Law Society president I. Stephanie backed the CBA’s strike as she argued the “short-term impact of direct action will pale in significance against the permanent departure of ever more criminal defence solicitors, barristers and law firms if this demanding work in the public interest is not properly rewarded.”
The Law Society president continued in saying the “rates paid by the state to criminal defence firms have been stuck in a time warp since the 1990s,” as she argued the current situation is a “make-or-break moment for the future of the beleaguered criminal justice system”
The poll comes after 94 per cent of barristers in March voted in favour of pursuing a “no returns” policy, which saw criminal barristers refuse to fill in for colleagues.