Criminal barristers are considering the possibility of strike action as the government ponders increasing in the legal aid budget.
Justice Secretary Dominic Raab has promised to respond by the end of March to an independent criminal legal aid review, led by Sir Christopher Bellamy, which has proposed funding increases after “years of neglect”.
However barristers fear the process could be held up by “long and tortuous” delays until at least the summer, heaping fresh pressure on Mr Raab to act decisively by mid-February.
The Criminal Bar Association (CBA) has written to its members, asking for views on the review’s findings, the government’s response timetable, and floating the possibility of industrial action.
After questioning if a government statement by the end of March before a consultation concluding in late June is “unreasonable”, the survey goes on to ask if barristers should “take action” if the government does not promise firm action by February 14.
“Do you agree that, if the government is not prepared to commit to a substantial increase of additional funding for the Advocates’ Graduated Fee Scheme, that criminal barristers should take action to include, as a minimum, no returns?”, the survey continues.
CBA chair Jo Sidhu QC said criminal barristers are “frustrated beyond measure” by delays in legal aid funding reform, and “angry with the indication from government that their response to those proposals will not be forthcoming until the end of March”.
“In my meeting with the Secretary of State for Justice on November 25, I stressed that time was of the essence and that the Criminal Bar needed a settlement on pay with the minimum of further delay”, he continued.
“In a subsequent meeting with the Under-Secretary of state for Justice on December 15, I made it abundantly clear that it would be utterly unacceptable for the Criminal Bar to wait another fifteen weeks to hear the government’s verdict, not least because the ensuing statutory consultation means that we might not know the final outcome of this long and tortuous process until the summer.”
Mr Sidhu said the profession is in need of “a significant injection of new funding”, to address historic shortfalls and stop growing numbers of lawyers from leaving the sector, and said the review’s proposals amount to an “insultingly small improvement”.
In his report, Sir Christopher Bellamy said £135 million a year extra was needed in the criminal legal aid system, adding that there is “‘no scope for further delay”.
The CBA survey is open for seven days, and could be followed by a ballot of members over industrial action.
A ‘no returns’ policy would cause havoc to the justice system, as the government seeks to put on as many criminal trials as possible to cut down the 60,000 backlog of cases.
Justice minister James Cartlidge told Parliament last week that the government is aiming to respond to the legal aid review by the end of March.