Move comes in response to ‘unacceptably low’ legal aid fees
A growing list of chambers have publicly declared that their criminal barristers will not accept returns from today over longstanding concerns with legal aid funding.
So far 25 sets and 13 individual barristers have come out in support of ‘no returns’, a live document administered by Twitter account Idle Court shows. The chambers include Exchange Chambers, Garden Court Chambers, 25 Bedford Row, among others.
Under no returns, barristers agree not to accept cases that are returned by colleagues who have a diary clash.
The action results from a recent ballot in which 94% of Criminal Bar Association (CBA) members voted to no longer accept return work, though they will continue to attend court and accept cases of their own.
This came in response to the government’s decision to invest an extra £135 million a year into the criminal legal aid system, the minimum recommended by Sir Christopher Bellamy QC in his review.
The CBA said in a statement:
“The action will be maintained until government agrees to a fair settlement of the criminal bar’s longstanding concerns about unacceptably low legal aid fees that are driving hundreds of our barristers out of criminal practice.”
The number of specialist criminal barristers has shrunk by a quarter in the last five years, the CBA said, meaning that there are now “insufficient” prosecutors and defenders to reduce the backlog of nearly 60,000 cases in the Crown Court.
“Without immediate action by government to substantially increase legal aid fees, more barristers will be forced out of criminal work and the backlog will grow longer, leaving victims and defendants waiting years for their cases to be heard.”
The government recently announced a 15% increase in fees, but only for new cases from October.
The CBA said that given the backlog, barristers could be waiting until 2024 and beyond to reap the benefit of any fee increases.
On Friday, the Bar Council released research showing that the number of barristers practising full-time in criminal law has dropped by more than 10% in 2020-21 compared to a year earlier — from 2,670 to 2,400.
The Law Society, meanwhile, has said that it understands why criminal barristers are taking a stand.
Law Society president I. Stephanie Boyce said: “The Criminal Bar Association and the Law Society are, for different reasons, both of the view that the Ministry of Justice’s proposals are woefully inadequate to address the crisis in the criminal defence professions.”
“Criminal law is no longer an attractive career option for young solicitors or barristers,” Boyce continued. “Many of those who are currently practising in criminal law will be considering how long they are able to continue doing so. We understand why barristers have chosen to take this action.”
Last year we carried out an investigation which found that law students are starting to veer off a career in criminal practice.