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Why are criminal barristers striking?
Criminal barristers across England and Wales are striking over a dispute with the UK government concerning legal aid and working conditions. Legal aid is the fees that barristers get for representing defendants who cannot afford to cover the legal costs themselves, so is crucial for adequate defendant representation. However, there's been a constant issue with legal aid fees being too low in the UK – with barristers previously holding a walkout in 2014 over the same dispute.
The median income for a junior barrister in their first three years of work is said to be around £12,200 a year – below the minimum wage. This salary for a qualified lawyer who has trained hard to get to their position, and who fights tirelessly for the individuals of this country, is appalling.
So, long hours and low pay is what criminal barristers are protesting against, with members of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) fighting for better legal aid and better conditions.
With hundreds of barristers leaving the profession, the criminal justice system is now on the verge of breaking point. Almost 40% of junior criminal barristers have left the profession in a year, with many more likely to leave in the future. It's sad to see individuals giving up on their career because it's not sustainable to meet the demands of everyday living costs.
Read more on this topic with this Blog post: 'Desperate times: one-year jail sentences and the magistrates'.
What about the backlog?
Currently, the backlog in court cases is huge. There are over 350,000 outstanding cases at the magistrates courts and over 58,000 outstanding cases at crown courts. Although covid-19 is partly to blame for the further increase in the backlog, before the first lockdown there were just under 40,000 outstanding crown court cases. This shows that it's not just covid-19 to blame, and that the low legal aid fees and tiring working conditions for criminal barristers is also causing the issue.
In the recent strikes, one criminal barrister stated that some of his cases were equivalent to him earning 49p an hour. Of course, striking is going to lead to further delays in cases, but it's important to remember that criminal barristers have worked hard to get to the position they are working at, and are rewarded with a failing criminal justice system that they're expected to uphold.
The government's response
In response to the recent strikes, the Ministry of Justice made an offer to the CBA – for criminal barristers to receive a 15% fee rise from the end of September, meaning criminal barristers will be earning £7,000 more per year. Although this may seem like a win, it is far from it. The CBA has been pushing for a 25% fee rise.
As well as being under what the CBA requested, the 15% fee rise will only apply to cases after September. This means that the hundreds of thousands of backlogged cases will still have the original legal aid fees attached, meaning many more years of criminal barristers being overstretched and overworked for low pay.
The government labelled the CBA strike action as “disappointing” and “unnecessary”, claiming that the strikes will only harm victims. This was in a bid to twist the pubilc perception into believing it's the barristers who are in the wrong. However, the vice chair of the CBA, Kirsty Brimelow, mentioned that the CBA has “repeatedly warned” the government of the negative impact that the declining incomes for criminal barristers will pose on the British legal system, but they have “no solution to saving the criminal justice system.”
The government has urged barristers to accept the proposed 15% pay rise, but barristers are not happy to accept this yet and will continue to fight for better pay and better conditions. After years of fighting, hopefully criminal barristers will get the justice they deserve.
The Ministry of Justice recently announced plans to fast-track legislation that will see barristers receive increased legal aid fees at a faster rate. There's more in this News story.