Dire pay conditions are threatening to topple the criminal justice system in the UK, barristers have warned, as strikes begin across the country over legal aid funding.
The Criminal Bar Association (CBA) said they have suffered an average decrease in real earnings of 28% since 2006 and juniors in their first three years earn a median income of £12,200 - below minimum wage.
Almost 40% of junior criminal barristers left the profession in one year, according to the group, as hundreds struggle with long hours and low pay.
One barrister, on strike outside the Old Bailey in London, said colleagues are “on our knees” and “cannot survive.”
“I know that many like myself have grown up in council estates, come from humble beginnings, being state educated and relying on scholarships and loans to get in to this profession,” Alejandra Llorente Tascon said.
“This is not just an issue for me, many like me are in hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of debt because of the education that we have invested upon to get into this profession.
“We are on our knees, we cannot survive on below minimum wage. We cannot survive with the way in which we are being paid.”
Justice Secretary Dominic Raab said the barrister strikes are “regrettable” and will “only delay justice for victims.”
CBA chairman Jo Sidhu QC, however, described barristers as the “poor persons” of the legal system.
Jo Sidhu QC, speaking outside the Old Bailey said: “Right now we are engulfed in a crisis of epic proportions that had never afflicted this country previously, which has brought almost to a standstill the system that we all love.
“Last year, we lost another 300 criminal barristers, why? Because they could not do this job anymore on what they were being paid, and for the hours that they were toiling.”
Mr Sidhu added the action is not merely about pay but “redressing the shortfall in the supply of criminal barristers to help deal with the crisis in our courts.”
Despite barristers having a reputation for being well paid, criminal barristers often struggle to make a living.
They are freelancers and are appointed by solicitors to defend cases in crown court.
Meanwhile, more than a quarter of specialist criminal barristers – around 300 – quit in the last five years, Mr Sidhu said.
“There remain around 2,400 specialist criminal barristers whose diminishing pool provide the very prosecutors, defence counsel, and part-time judges the government relies on to clear a record backlog of cases and delay of their own making," he said.
“In reality, our judges have been forced to adjourn 567 trials last year at the last minute because there simply wasn’t a prosecuting or defence barrister available.
“These shortages in manpower are causing increasing misery to victims and those accused who are desperately waiting, sometimes for years, to get justice and to see their cases finally resolved in court.”
As part of the strike, they will also refuse to accept new cases and to carry out “return work” – stepping in and picking up court hearings and other work for colleagues whose cases are overrunning.
The CBA said around 81.5% of the more than 2,000 members to vote in the ballot supported walking out of court.
Of those who backed walkouts, most subsequently voted for the option of refusing new cases as well. In total, 43.5% of all those balloted opted for this particular combination.
In a statement released ahead of the first day of strikes, Mr Raab said: “It’s regrettable that the Criminal Bar Association is striking, given only 43.5% of their members voted for this particular, most disruptive, option.
“I encourage them to agree the proposed 15% pay rise which would see a typical barrister earn around £7,000 more a year. Their actions will only delay justice for victims.”
However, a CBA spokesperson said the 15% pay rise would not land immediately since it would not apply to backlogged cases.
They said: “The existing rates will remain on all of the cases stuck on this record backlog until they conclude which may be many years away.”
The promised industrial action comes at a time of significant delays within the justice system.
The most recent figures from HM Courts and Tribunals Service show there were 358,076 outstanding cases at magistrates’ courts, and 58,271 outstanding cases at crown courts, as of April 2022.
The delays vary widely depending on the crime - with victims of rape and other serious sexual offences waiting the longest for prosecutions to be completed.
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Barristers are the latest profession to go on strike, after action by rail workers last week, and amid reports of unrest among teaching staff and NHS employees.
The strike action is intended to last for four weeks, beginning with walkouts on Monday June 27 and Tuesday June 28, increasing by one day each week until a five-day strike from Monday July 18 to Friday July 22.
It means cases at which barristers are required are likely to have to be postponed, including crown court trials.
Barristers are staging picket lines outside courts including at the Old Bailey in London and at crown courts in Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Leeds and Manchester.