Striking criminal barristers gathered outside London’s Old Bailey where eight out of 10 cases were disrupted by the strike. Image: Ian Browne
Criminal lawyers across the UK have gone on strike over pay – and will continue to do so, they say, until their demands are met.
The industrial action has escalated since June when The Criminal Bar Association (CBA) first organised the walk out. The government has offered a deal that has been rejected by the organisation’s members.
During the strike defence barristers will refuse to take on new cases, forcing judges to delay hearings and put back trials.
Lawyers working in criminal justice say they cannot make a living anymore, with many moving into other types of law where there is better pay. This further adds to strain existing criminal lawyers are put under, and adds to the huge backlog of cases.
In a bid to raise the rates of pay to levels more on par with other parts of the legal profession, the CBA is asking for an immediate 25 per cent increase to their fees.
“Members of the criminal bar have been feeling mistreated, undervalued and overwhelmed for a decade or more. The criminal justice system has been politicised by figures wishing to make political capital but unwilling to match the rhetoric with action and funding,” said Mark Fenhalls, chair of the Bar Council.
Under the legal aid system, the government pays for barristers to ensure defendants who cannot afford lawyers are properly advised and represented. Without them, justice cannot be delivered.
Here’s why barristers say they are on strike.
1. The government has failed to meet the demands of the Criminal Bar Association over the last two months
The dispute between the CBA and the government has escalated since the organisation’s members voted to strike on June 27. After starting with a two-day walkout, this increased to three the following week, then four the week after until criminal barristers were on strike full time.
The last time barristers went on strike, it was called off after just one and a half days.
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) says it offered a 15 per cent increase, but the CBA responded that after other deductions, what they’re offering would be really just a 6-7 per cent raise. They have rejected the offer and decided to strike indefinitely.
“As criminal barristers start their historic, last resort, indefinite action, it is not too late for the secretary of state for justice and lord chancellor to change his legacy,” said Kirsty Brimelow QC, chair of the CBA.
“Criminal barristers have stopped soldiering on through downtrodden criminal courts. They have stopped watching vulnerable people bounced into trials in 2024 with hands clasped in prayer that there will be anyone left to prosecute and defend.
“This is not a ‘world-class justice system’ as set out as the vision of the Ministry of Justice. It is not even a functioning justice system.”
2. Criminal barristers are quitting at alarming rates due to low pay
Declining pay for criminal barristers over the last 30 years has forced many to leave the profession. By 2019/20, there were just 2,300 criminal specialists at the bar.
“That exodus accelerated significantly over the pandemic and was correlated with an unprecedented and substantial loss of average incomes in the space of just one year,” says the CBA.
“Many criminal barristers struggled to meet their bills and tax liabilities and were forced into debt, or used their savings in order to continue in practice.”
3. Over 250 courts have closed since 2010
Half of magistrates’ courts closed between 2010 and 2019, leaving defendants, witnesses, police and lawyers to travel huge distances to court.
“That not only means less cases being heard but also increased difficulty for those who rely on public transport to reach a court,” said Christian Fox, a barrister at Becket Chambers.
Having to travel further to get to court has increased costs for barristers, particularly as the cost of fuel is rising, this is further depleting the wages of lawyers already working in the least profitable area of criminal? law.
“There are not enough judges and magistrates sitting, and some courtrooms are empty. There are not enough court staff,” says Fox.
“This means court orders often come out after the dates that are in them for things to be done have passed. That might not seem vital, but if you are a victim of domestic abuse waiting for a non-molestation order, so that you can show it to the police when your abuser sits outside your house, it is vital,” he continued.
5. Too few junior lawyers are joining, or staying, in criminal law
Despite the reputation of lawyers earning huge sums of money, criminal lawyers make far less than those working in other areas such as commercial or entertainment law.
The Lawyer’s Richard Simmons, writes: “While even the most junior barristers at most successful commercial chambers can earn in excess of £70,000 and the top commercial QCs can command huge fees, their counterparts at criminal and family sets can make £20,000 or less at the start of their careers.”
With such low pay on offer at the start of their careers – having paid tens of thousands of pounds to qualify – criminal law is an increasingly unattractive career option to newly qualified junior lawyers. One in five have left the profession since 2016, and 81 per cent said they were reluctant to pursue a long-term career in crime, according to a survey conducted by the Law society.
More than 5,800 victims of serious violent and sexual crime have been waiting over a year for justice. The crown courts are currently experiencing huge backlogs as they struggle to get through all the cases awaiting trial. While the backlog was already increasing before the pandemic, the number of cases awaiting trial increased by nearly 50 per cent from 39,000 pre-pandemic to nearly 60,000.
Jo Sidhu and Kirsty Brimelow from the CBA said: “This extraordinary commitment to the democratic process reflects a recognition among criminal barristers at all levels of call and across all circuits that what is at stake is the survival of a profession of specialist criminal advocates and of the criminal justice system which depends so critically upon their labour.
“Without immediate action to halt the exodus of criminal barristers from our ranks, the record backlog that has crippled our courts will continue to inflict misery upon victims and defendants alike, and the public will be betrayed.”
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