Criminal barristers vote to go on strike as legal aid dispute with government escalates

·3-min read
Criminal barristers have voted to walk out in legal aid row (Jane Barlow/PA) (PA Archive)
Criminal barristers have voted to walk out in legal aid row (Jane Barlow/PA) (PA Archive)

Barristers have voted to go on strike from next week in the ongoing row with government over Legal Aid funding.

More than 80 per cent of voters in a Criminal Bar Association (CBA) poll supported ‘days of action’, beginning from next Monday and Tuesday together with refusing instructions on new cases.

Criminal barristers have already adopted a ‘no returns’ policy in the rumbling dispute over the future of Legal Aid funding, and have now supported a dramatic escalation of the industrial action.

Without resolution, barristers also plan to walk out on July 4-6, July 11-14, and for the entire week starting on Monday 18 July. From August, walkouts will continune on alternate weeks “with no end date”, say the CBA.

Jo Sidhu QC, chair of the CBA, and vice chair Kirsty Brimelow QC said in a statement on Monday morning: “Following an unprecedented consultation with ordinary members and leaders of the Criminal Bar, the ballot which opened on 11th June has now closed. Over the course of just eight days, 2,055 of you cast your vote. The level of engagement in this second ballot was even higher than that witnessed in the first poll in March in which 1,908 votes were received during a two-week period.

“This extraordinary commitment to the democratic process reflects a recognition amongst 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.

“This second ballot has reaffirmed our reputation as an open and democratic association. Our members have always respected the outcome of a free and fair voting process, whatever the result. We will therefore be faithful to the ballot. Our unity is our strength.”

Rallies of striking barristers are expected outside six crown courts around the country on Monday next week, including the Old Bailey.

Lawyers say legal aid funding has fallen by 43 per cent in real terms since 2004, and argue the government’s proposed reforms do not go far enough or deliver changes quickly enough.

“Throughout the past year, we have continued to engage regularly with the Ministry of Justice, including a further meeting with the Under-Secretary of State for Justice on 25th May”, said Mr Sidhu.

He said “repeated efforts” have been made to persuade the government to “honour” recommendations in an independent review of legal aid funding, increasing fees by a minimum of 15 per cent immediately.

“Government continues to insist that they will not shorten their timetable”, he said.

The CBA says the justice crisis is driving lawyers, particularly junior criminal barristers, out of the system, hampering efforts to tackle the near-60,000 case backlog.

In a statement, Justice Minister James Cartlidge said: “This is a disappointing decision by the Criminal Bar Association, considering less than 50 per cent of CBA members voted in support of the option likely to cause the most disruption.

“The 15 per cent pay increase we consulted on would mean a typical criminal barrister earning around £7,000 extra per year and only last week I confirmed we are moving as quickly as possible to introduce fee rises by the end of September.

“We encourage the Criminal Bar Association to work with us, rather than escalate to unnecessary strike action, as it will only serve to harm victims as they are forced to wait longer for justice.”

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