Until further notice, the Crown Courts will grind to a halt due to barristers on strike!
Members of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) have voted overwhelmingly to escalate strike action. The Government has failed to respond to ongoing disruption in the criminal justice system. This means that from Friday 26th August, barristers will not attend the Crown Court for legally aided defence cases
This is a significant step taken by independent barristers. In today’s post, we focus on how this happened.
The strike is caused by the failure of successive Governments to fund the criminal justice system adequately. If you have ever had to attend a criminal court, you would be forgiven for wondering how such important work is carried out in such run down buildings. It is no exaggeration to say that rooves and ceilings have literally fallen in due to the poor maintenance of the courts.
However, the focus of the CBA’s action is the fees paid to advocates defending in the Crown Court for legally aided defendants.
Why Legal Aid Matters:
One of the most important aspects of the criminal justice system is that everyone is entitled to a fair trial. This requires defendants to have representation, even if they can’t afford to pay for defence lawyers. The Legal Aid system ensures that everyone can have independent legal advice and assistance.
The rates paid under the Legal Aid scheme are set by the Government, and (generally speaking) are based on the seriousness of the case as well as how many times a lawyer has to appear at court for the case.
However these fees have not improved for the best part of 20 years. No increase in fees or adjustment for inflation. Imagine if you worked in the same job since 2006, and were on exactly the same wage… in “real terms”, you would be earning 28% less… a pay cut of more than a quarter, simply due to the passage of time! This doesn’t even factor in “restructuring” of fees, which has consistently worked against the interests of the advocates involved.
Just a Pay Rise?
In 2019, the Government asked Sir Christopher Bellamy QC to undertake a review of Legal Aid. In December 2021, the Government published the report. The key recommendations were:
- A “minimum” 15% annual increase to all AGFS fees, to be introduced “as
soon as possible” and with “no scope for further delay”.
- Further reform of the AGFS without excluding the possibility that “further
sums may be necessary”. (These potential reforms were addressing more complicated aspects of the work advocates undertake)
Unfortunately, the Government seemed to stop at the words “minimum 15%.” The full extent of their response was to increase legal aid advocacy fees by 15% for cases that start after September 2022. This means that in reality, barristers won’t receive the new payments until summer of 2023 at the earliest- so much for “no scope for further delay”!
Inevitably, the rest of the recommendations in the Bellamy Report, like further reform and the pay Advisory Board, were completely ignored and moved away into the distant future.
So Now We Have Criminal Barristers On Strike
The CBA represents the majority of barristers who take on criminal cases. Because of the Government’s refusal to budge from their limited response to the Bellamy Report, the CBA balloted members on taking action. The response was overwhelming:
- Barristers are tired of being taken for granted.
- The Criminal Justice system relies on the goodwill of barristers, but
- The Government does not value our work.
- Since April, barristers have used a slowly escalating level of strike action to draw attention to how much the Criminal Justice System relies on the cooperation and goodwill of barristers.
Since April, barristers have used a series of steps to draw attention to the problem. The Government has not engaged in any meaningful way, and so we are left in this position: Criminal barristers on strike; defendants, witnesses, and alleged victims left in limbo.
If you, or someone you know falls into these categories, we are sorry. Truly. Nobody wants to strike. We wouldn’t work in criminal law if we weren’t dedicated to the process and the aim of achieving justice. But we can’t let the Government ignore their own report at our expense.