Criminal barristers on Monday picketed outside of London’s Old Bailey court as part of a strike over legal aid fees.
Hundreds of barristers, solicitors, and other supporters turned up at the picket line outside of the UK’s most famous court, in demanding a 25 per cent increase in legal aid fees.
The strike comes as barristers say low legal aid fees have created a recruitment crisis in the bar that has seen hundreds of barristers leave the profession.
Speaking to the crowd, Criminal Bar Association (CBA) chair Jo Sidhu QC, said: “If you don’t pay people a living wage, they will walk.”
The strike comes after barristers rejected the government’s March offer to increase legal aid fees by 15 per cent, after an independent review from Sir Christopher Bellamy QC said a 15 per cent increase is the “minimum” needed to nurse the justice system back to health after “years of neglect”.
Criminal barristers rejected the government’s offer, as they argued the 15 per cent rate hike will be swallowed by soaring inflation.
In launching the strike, barristers also called for any increase to be put in place immediately, as they note the government’s current offer will only apply to new cases, meaning the ~60,000 backlog cases will be paid at the previous rates.
The strike – which is set to run on Monday and Tuesday this week – is now set to escalate over coming weeks, by running for an extra day each week until all five court days are covered, at which point it will alternate on a week on, week off basis. The strike will also see barristers refuse to take on new cases.
Kerry Hudson, the ex-head of the London Criminal Courts and Solicitors Association (LCCSA), said the criminal justice system is now increasingly reliant on lawyers’ goodwill, as she told the crowd: “We care about what we do – if we didn’t, we’d all quit and get jobs in the Magic Circle.”
Sarah Jones QC, a barrister at Pumpcourt Chambers, told City A.M. the bar is facing a major “recruitment crisis” as she said chambers are struggling to retain young barristers.
“People want to do crime, they’re interested in crime, but they cannot pay their bills,” Jones said.
Mark McDonald QC, a criminal barrister at Furnival Chambers, also said he had found it increasingly hard to recruit and retain criminal barristers.
“If you don’t get the junior barristers, the system stops,” the barrister said.
One junior barrister, Vakas Hussain told City A.M. the job is becoming increasingly “intolerable,” as he explained that after travel costs, VAT, and the 20 per cent fees paid out to barristers’ chambers, net pay for those in the first three years of work is around £15,000 per year, due to the fact barristers are self-employed.
Hussain said the situation risks turning the “brightest and best” away from the criminal bar.
The strike comes after the Lord Chief Justice told judges to report striking barristers to the Bar Standards Board, if they fail to turn up in court.
Nicholas Fooks, a barrister at 5 Paper Buildings Chambers, said the Lord Chief Justice’s comments were “completely and utterly outrageous”.
Hussain said that while the Lord Chief Justice’s comments were “disconcerting,” the fact that barristers are taking action “sums up the desperation we feel,” through their willingness to take a significant professional risk.
Justice secretary Dominic Raab described the strike as “regrettable” as he said the CBA’s “actions will only delay justice for victims.”