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Criminal barristers go on strike – how did we get here?

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Indefinite, uninterrupted strike starts today

Criminal barristers in England and Wales have today started an indefinite, uninterrupted strike over legal aid rates.

The walkout marks an escalation in tensions between criminal barristers and the government as they fail to agree on what is an acceptable level of pay for legal aid work.

The government decides what barristers get paid when defending those who qualify for legal aid. Following government cuts between 2010 and 2014, an Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid published in December 2021 concluded that “funding for criminal legal aid should be increased overall for solicitors and barristers alike as soon as possible to an annual level, in steady state, of at least 15% above present levels”.

The government responded by accepting the independent review’s recommendation to throw an extra £135 million a year into the criminal legal aid sector and later in 2022 announced that it would increase the fees by 15% in September.

The Criminal Bar Association (CBA), however, wants a 25% pay rise from the government, arguing that with inflation at around 10% this “means that a 15% rise in fees will be more than extinguished by the time we receive it.”

The CBA says there has been an average decrease in criminal barristers’ real earnings of 28% since 2006 with average earnings from legal aid collapsing by 23% during the pandemic.

Industrial action was first taken back in April when criminal barristers stopped accepting returns (where a barrister will fill in for another barrister who cannot attend court and represent their client). At the time, the Justice Secretary Dominic Raab labelled this decision by the CBA “unnecessary and irresponsible”, linking barristers’ strike action to court delays.

Barristers then staged a series of escalating walkouts for four weeks from 27 June unless a deal was reached. These strikes were marred by allegations that Raab had requested the names of striking criminal barristers to be provided to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) following reports by the Law Gazette that Crown court clerks had been asked to record daily data regarding non-attendance including those who did not attend court owing to strike action.

In response to the reports, the then chair of CBA, Jo Sidhu QC said: “Members were understandably concerned to hear reports that the Ministry of Justice had instructed court staff to name all barristers who do not attend court hearings because they are participating in the CBA’s days of action, involving criminal defence advocates. The CBA takes these reports extremely seriously. We have taken advice from solicitors and specialist counsel to consider whether this amounts to unlawful processing of personal data.”

Last week, the CBA said it had obtained internal court service emails stating that Lord Chancellor Dominic Raab made “a direct request” for striking criminal barristers’ names to be provided to the MoJ “with full knowledge of the downsides”. The MoJ has called these claims “categorically untrue” and it is understood that no names were directly shared with Raab.

With this build-up of distrust between both sides and no sign of agreement, criminal barristers, who had before this year only staged a day-and-a-half walkout back in 2014, are now at the beginning of an indefinite, uninterrupted strike.

For barristers, however, all this is not just about pay, but also about the current state of the criminal justice system and the future of the criminal bar. The anonymous best-selling author the Secret Barrister explains:

“It is not just about pay. It is about so, so much more. The criminal justice system has been devastated by years of cuts and chronic underfunding. Every part of the system has been slashed to the bone.”

Commenting on today’s strikes, Kirsty Brimelow QC, who on 1 September took up her role as chair of the CBA, said: “Barristers have stopped soldiering on through downtrodden courts.” She called for “proper investment in barristers who deliver the justice”, adding “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.”

Justice Minister Sarah Dines has described today’s walkout as “an irresponsible decision that will only see more victims face further delays and distress”. The MoJ maintains that an increase beyond the proposed 15% will “cost a disproportionate amount of taxpayers’ money”.

Two key consequences of this fallout are increasing court backlogs in England and Wales, which at the end of June stood at 58,973 outstanding cases, and a brain-drain from the criminal bar in the wake of record pay rises in corporate law firms to the tune of around £180k as the highest NQ wages.

Criminal silk Chris Daw QC expressed his frustration on Twitter: “I don’t think the government realises that the barrister strike is not really a strike at all. For most junior criminal barristers it is the end of the line. They just can’t survive on legal aid rates. So they will just leave and do something else. They are very clever.”

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38 Comments

Alan

To answer the question in the title, by allowing attention seeking lefties in to the profession and giving a generation a sense of entitlement, and that when you want something you just have to scream and sulk until you get it.

Old man yells at cloud

Stop being a baby, Alan

Alan's nurse

Alan’s not a baby.

He’s a big kid!

He wears Pull-Ups!

The Talented Mr C

Alan isn’t his real name. It’s an anagram to disguise his true character.

Posterior View

I, for one, got the joke.

Go away

People like you need to leave the profession.

anonymous

What on earth makes you think Alan could have any sort of viable practice? His comments – made with a speed and regularity that can only indicate constant checking of a legal website targetted at students – scream failed “old man junior” or qualified non-practising barrister (any age). Either way a big old chip.

Richard Benson QC

Sadly, this is an uninformed, unintelligent and unhelpful comment. The Crimean Bar has been under attack from the treasury for years. many very able practitioners have left in order to find higher paid work, either at the employed Bar or in commerce and industry or academia. They do not have the luxury of big pensions. The quoted fees that are bandied about bt politicians and the lame-brained critics are wholly inaccurate and totally misleading. Barristers are self employed and out of their gross fees, have to pay Chambers rent, staff salaries, all travel/hotel costs, professional indemnity insurance, health insurance etc , They do not get sick pay or paid holidays. Circuit barristers need reliable cars to drive many thousands of miles per year in order to reach remote courts. Their work load is crippling and the stress factors are enormously high. Both prosecution and defence counsel bear a heavy burden of responsibility to ensure that justice is done and that individual freedoms are not violated. Those of you who criticise them do so out of lamentable ignorance. Most Criminal practitioners are paid out of the public purse. The fees are derisory, the facilities are pathetically inadequate. Their family lives suffer greatly; `they miss their children’s school and sporting events; they hardly ever take weekend breaks or time off for sickness; When the courts are running efficiently, Junior barristers are generally dealing with several cases.They have to get the facts and the law right, otherwise there will be a risk of a miscarriage of justice. While the lay people are worrying how they can get more company expenses and fringe benefits, bonus payments etc, the criminal barrister is worrying about making sure that they can provide a proper service to their clients and a reasonable way of life for their families. I suggest that you learn a little about what the Criminal bar practitioners do, before you criticise them.

Richard Benson QC

The early part of my original post should read”The criminal Bar”, not “Crimean”. Predictive text got it wrong!

Alexandr

The Crimean Bar has far more to worry about than low rate of Legal Aid pay.

Like Russian “guilty before innocent” Courts and getting bombed!

Anonymous

“Their family lives suffer greatly; `they miss their children’s school and sporting events; they hardly ever take weekend breaks or time off for sickness”

There are many, MANY shift and zero-hour workers in the UK (in numbers far greater than the criminal bar) who also miss their kids, feel stressed, have little rest on the weekend and worry about taking time off for sickness. Ever used Amazon, Deliveroo or eaten in a restaurant? What exactly do you think their workers go through?

The difference between those people and criminal barristers is that one group is treated as an underclass, whilst the other group co-opts arguments to divert public attention away from those who really need the most help.

The experiences of those in the criminal bar feeling underpaid, stressed-out and unappreciated is not unique to criminal barristers alone. But I doubt many in the criminal bar would protest in the same way for better working conditions at the Amazon warehouse, stocking food banks, ending fuel poverty or campaigning to increase welfare benefits as they are at the moment for what appears in their own bank balances.

We are informed, thank you. There is real poverty in the UK, and it’s not found amongst criminal barristers.

Not a criminal barrister

The difference is that most people in the gig economy have no other emploment options. The average criminal barrister does, but they are continuing to practice because of their commitment to criminal justice. The issue is that the end of the line has arrived, and goodwill has evaporate. Life would be more annoying without the gig economy, but would go on. Not sure the state can continue without a functioning criminal justice system.

Narcissism, yo

This pretty much covers exactly why the public has zero sympathy – criminal barristers really do believe they are better, smarter, more brilliant and more worthy than the public they claim to love helping so much (by striking).

Do they not represent members of the gig economy in court? Do they really believe the world can function without the existence of those they consider to be beneath them???

The arrogance is staggering. Kudos to all those looking at the behaviour and not listening to the excuses.

Pupil

I beg to differ.

£12K p/a in London before expenses.

Benefit Fraud Is A Crime

Why isn’t a single barrister coming forward to reveal that they claim free school meals and need housing benefit if they really live on £12k p/a?

Is it because they actually have inheritances, professional development loans, wealthy live-in partners, investments, property or savings that mean they don’t actually live on the £12k a year earnings they claim to?

Archibald Pomp O'City

Oh, Alan. You’re a scream xxx

Working From A Georgian Townhouse

It’s very hard to have sympathy for people who claim they are poor, yet protest in £400 horsehair wigs

Angela M

They have no choice to wear those wigs. Believe me it was a very expensive purchase when my daughter qualified which away from the perception barristers are privileged cane from a working class background. I can’t account for the amount of times I’ve repaired her wig over the years, as unable to buy another one.

Jaundiced crimbo lady

As I recall, a few years ago the criminal (aka Crimean) bar was polled on whether wigs should continue. And the result was overwhelmingly in favour of retention. In some respects that’s perfectly understandable – wigs help with anonymity when the accused/accused’s friends are horrible thugs and see the barrister on the bus home – but that expense is not imposed on your daughter, other than by members of the profession she was eager to join.

Nope

Does your daughter have to choose between heating and eating this winter?

That is a very real choice for many today in the UK.

It’s embarrassing for barristers to plead ‘poverty’ for all its emotive connotations, when there really are people in the UK who have no choice but to use food banks, rely on free school meals and who literally cannot pay their bills.

Will a single barrister admit to using a food bank or needing free school meals for their child?

Comrade Maclean

I’m truly as left wing as they come, but criminal barristers are workers and deserve proper compensation, humane working hours and protection from exploitation like anyone else.

Don’t use the very real plight of the poorest in our society to further divide the working class. A primary part of the reason that there is such poverty is a broken labour (not the political party) movement and a divided working class.

Stand on the pickets with the Criminal Bar, stand on the pickets with gig workers and train staff.

Anonymous

Is it easier to have sympathy for striking firefighters, who wear equipment worth thousands of pounds? Or for train drivers, who drive multi-million pound trains? Or soldiers who operate state of the art military equipment?

Just because the equipment used or required is worth a lot of money, it does not mean those operating it are well off. And unlike the others in those examples, barristers have to pay for their own wigs.

Anon

Why are we here? Because they are paid absolutely nothing. I sit in my high-rise office making pretty tables in word for 50k a year. They are defending / prosecuting people for under half that. Go figure.

B

Out of curiosity…what’s your job title?

John.

Carpenter.

Anon

“Trainee Solicitor”

Yes, I know. When you start work you will also realise the job isn’t quite what you think it’ll be.

PimpMyRollsRoyce

Turning down a 15 per cent rise is poorly judged.

The government can now accelerate solicitor advocacy rights and approve CPS advocacy promotions as a short term measure. Then it can turn to providing a cheaper, leaner, public defence system instead of using the publicly funded private bar. We do not need the world’s best system when it is publicly funded, we need the minimum costing system that delivers the minimum to meet rights’ commitments.

Steve Jerome

Oh dear,Pimpy.
Have you never encountered the notion of miscarriage of justice?
This is not Russia

Steve Jerome

I guess that if you were unfortunate enough to face a prosecution you would not want the bare minimum of justice to meet your low bar for efficiency

Anon

I’ve got a better idea. Let people defend themselves so we don’t need to pay anyone! Ah yes, solved it.

Come on…

TheBarristersWife

The strikes are an issue of keeping a profession alive and functioning. Juniors and newly qualified barristers cannot survive on the current fees and are leaving in their droves for better paid jobs. A combination of factors means that the 15% offer was an insult to the criminal bar:

Real earnings for legal aid criminal barristers have dropped 28% since 2006 due to government cuts. That is why a starting point of 25% with immediate effect has been taken by the CBA as a means of simply getting back on track.

The 15% increase was offered last year before the cost of living crisis hit, so it has basically been nullified now.

Due to the backlog, which was in place long before the strikes and the pandemic, barristers will not see cases with the government proposed increased fees for years due to the time it takes to process court hearings, by which time the increase will have been wiped out. Barristers will still be paid the current fees for work they are currently doing and have in their diaries for years to come.

The fees criminal barrister do receive may not be paid for months or years after a case has concluded, or if the case is ongoing for a significant period of time. They do not get an advance on the work they provide like many professions demand, or regularity of income, and they do not get a say in when they will be paid, their fees just accrue. Barristers are basically in constant limbo and can be chasing money owed to them, sometimes for years.

Criminal barristers are paid fixed fees regardless of the work they put in. This can be an advantage if picking up an easy case, but it also means they can be loaded with massive and complex cases for as little as £60, and these can be sprung upon them with less than a day’s notice. Due to the cab rank rule, barristers cannot cherry pick the cases they do, so it is pot luck based on their level of experience what cases and fees they get.

They are self employed. They are not entitled to pension contributions, sick pay or holiday pay. They must also pay for several expenses and likely debts, including insurance, clothing (including the robes and wigs), travel, VAT, chambers rent, and student and maintenance loans of between £60,000 to £80,000 (studying post 2012 i.e. newly qualified who are leaving/not joining).

I have not even gone into detail about all the other ways the criminal justice system has been completely defunded in terms of buildings facilities, issues around picking up cases and cracked fees, issues for the CPS, solicitors being overworked and the up and downstream of the criminal justice system. It has been completely wrecked under years of neglect and choking off.

All of this means that fewer and fewer people are joining and sticking with a criminal bar profession, leading to a brain drain and a crumbling overworked system. Someone mentioned in a comment that those who qualify in law are more adaptable to switching careers compared to average warehouse worker and they are right. That is part of the issue; barristers are smart and they are leaving.

It is a career that individuals have invested heavily in, take on great responsibility, and work at tirelessly to ensure our right to a fair trial is upheld. Criminal justice may not be at the forefront of everyone’s lives, but when it is at the forefront of yours and you cannot afford representation, you will be thankful to have a barrister who can competently represent you in a timely manner because they are paid well, of the highest calibre, and there are enough of them to go around.

John Robson

Barristers are underpaid there have been for years it is not just the victimes that will suffer but also defendants that are on remand how MP s receive 80.000 pounds ayear plus expenses for doing nothing is beyond me I would support the Barristers I have done quite a few prison sentences but I have no complaints about any barrister

Bloke

A good time to reform the system and end the need for using taxpayer cash to outsource prosecution and defence work. No sympathy with anyone who turns their nose up at a 15 per cent pay rise. How tone deaf are these people?

Bird

Er… it is outsourced.

These are the fees paid to the independent Bar.

You obviously know nothing about how the system works…

Anon

Apart from the whinging of the independent bar losing control, is there any practical reason why criminal defence advocacy work could not be transformed into an employed positions directly funded by a government department?

Anonymous

Conflict of interest perhaps?

Not a criminal barrister

Employed people have rights. Doubt many people are goung to want to take on 80 hour weeks at less than minimum wage and sign away holidays etc. What do you estimate the costs of a public defender unit to be?

Archibald Pomp O'City

These barristers are throwing their clients under the bus. Their strike is a heinous crime. They should be eating the last of their value-brand baked beans cold from the tin before they even contemplate laying down their tools during a live case.

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