Criminal Barristers across England and Wales are walking out of court and refusing to accept instructions in a fight over legal aid funding – what does this mean and how will this impact the legal community? Read here to find out.
Why are criminal barristers striking?
Criminal barristers in England and Wales are striking over legal aid. The UK introduced legal aid in 1949 in order to allow people who would’ve otherwise been unable to afford access to the courts to gain legal representation and it remains integral in making justice indiscriminate and accessible to everyone. However, for decades the government’s lack lustre funding into legal aid has left a deflated and vastly declining number of criminal barristers who are unable and unwilling to carry out a career in the most unappreciated and underpaid branch of law, with junior barristers in their early years of practise earning on average a wage of £12,200.
The Criminal Bar Association previously requested a 15% rise from the government in the Criminal Legal Aid Review. The review was announced in December 2018, after the Ministry of Justice’s claimed they had been listening to the concerns of those working in criminal defence. In March 2022 the government promised to deliver the 15% increase and responded to the review stating:
“We owe our whole legal profession – solicitors, barristers, court staff and judiciary – a debt of gratitude for keeping the wheels of justice turning over the last two years. Thanks to their efforts, we are making headway in tackling the court backlog, and getting back to a more normal way of working – in the interests of victims, witnesses and the wider public…Our legal aid system needs the investment to ensure continued high standards of representation before our courts, and sustainable criminal legal professions.”Response to Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid – 15 Mar 2022
However, the Criminal Bar Association is now calling for a 25% rise in order to make up for the length of time the review took and for the years barristers have had to endure funding cuts. Consequently, barristers are joining ranks to enact real change with walkouts due to begin Monday 27th and Tuesday 28th June 2022. The walkouts will increase by one day each week until the week beginning 18 July, which is when there will be a full five-day walkout. Furthermore, people will gather at the Old Bailey, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Leeds, and Manchester Crown Courts in protest.
The second strike by Criminal Barristers
This will be the second time that CBA barristers will have taken strike action to protest legal aid. The first time being in 2014 when it was announced that the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling was removing £220m a year from the criminal legal aid budget. This led to a one- day strike in protest. The strike action in 2014 and subsequent protests by barristers has shown how the cuts to legal aid has beleaguered the Criminal Bar. The recent decision to once again strike is not one that was taken lightly. It highlights the increased frustration and exhaustion barristers are feeling and the ever-growing need for things to change.
The general reaction to the strikes
A strong divide currently separates barristers and the government in their feelings towards the strike. Whilst over 80% of the Criminal Bar Association’s members voted for strike action, the government responded negatively with Justice Secretary Dominic Raab stating the strikes would “only delay justice for victims.” Furthermore, the Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett issued a statement threatening barristers who partake in the strikes with professional misconduct for non-attendance, leaving members of the bar who have worked tirelessly for the U.K. justice system feeling betrayed.
The deputy chair of the CBA, Kirsty Brimelow QC has fought for barristers, arguing that the government only has themselves to blame for what barristers feel they’ve been forced to do in order to be heard, stating the issue has been “caused by government, not by barristers.” Furthermore, tirades of people have voiced their opinion online, with many responding to Blessing at the Bar that the strikes are a necessary action.
What is next for the Criminal Bar’s strike action?
Criminal barristers have fought vigorously for sensitive cases and vulnerable clients in difficult times; the climbing case backlog, a global pandemic and an insufficient funding pot stretched over thousands of people have tested our criminal advocates. Whilst these strikes will inevitably add to the continuing case backlog England and Wales is facing, it will also certainly send a message to the government of the importance of the criminal advocates in upholding our criminal justice system. BATB is interested to know your thoughts on the strikes, please let us know.