Why are barristers on strike and are courts at 'breaking point'?

Barristers have warned low pay and working conditions are driving people away from the profession - which adds to the backlog in the courts. Credit: PA

Barristers in England and Wales have voted in favour of an all-out strike next month in a row with the government over jobs and pay.

During the first week of strikes, back in June, hundreds on picket lines accused the government of ignoring concerns about the criminal justice system and are angry about a proposed pay rise that could take years to kick in.

Members of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) had been walking out on alternate weeks but have now voted to escalate the industrial action with an indefinite, uninterrupted strike that would start on September 5.

It comes comes just days after the latest set of walkouts by rail, Tube and bus workers.

ITV News Correspondent Ben Chapman reports on how criminal barristers became the latest group to take industrial action as strikes sweep across the public sector

When are the strikes?

Previous strike action lasted 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.

That made for a total of 14 days of strike action.

Members are now planning an uninterrupted, potentially indefinite strike from September 5.

Why are these strikes happening?

The walkout centres on concerns around legal aid funding and conditions, with hundreds of barristers struggling to cope with low pay and long hours.

The Criminal Bar Association (CBA), which represents barristers in England and Wales, said 300 barristers have left the profession over the past five years.

Criminal barristers from the CBA outside Manchester Crown Court. Credit: PA

Almost 40% of junior criminal barristers left the profession in one year, according to the group.

The more barristers leave, the more likely cases and trials are to be postponed due to missing representation – which adds to an already-massive backlog in the criminal justice system.

On Monday, Kirsty Brimelow, vice chair of the CBA, said this was “last-resort action” over a demand for less money than it costs the government for the courts to sit empty.

She told BBC Breakfast: “The effect (of the strike) will be that the courts continue to sit empty with trials and cases not being heard. It is a last-resort action.

“The remedy is for an injection of money into the backlog of cases which currently stands at 60,000 cases, that barristers are working on that will cost the government only £1.1 million per month.

“Currently, it’s costing much more for the courts to sit empty.”

How bad are these backlogs?

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.

Before the first lockdown, there were 38,411 crown court cases.

Barristers have been on strike outside Leeds Combined Court. Credit: PA

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.

Last year, Inspectors from Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate (HMCPSI) warned the number of cases for prosecutors is increasing at an “alarming rate” and could have “major consequences” for victims and witnesses.

HMCPSI said delays in cases coming to court affect “the ability of victims, witnesses and defendants to recollect the events and can impact on their willingness to attend court to give evidence.”

So why are so many barristers leaving?

The short answer is low pay and long hours.

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.

Criminal barristers from the Western Circuit lined up outside Bristol Crown Court. Credit: PA

The 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.

Speaking outside Bristol Crown Court last week, barrister Kannan Siva said more than one in four barristers have been “driven out of the jobs they loved because they simply can’t afford to stay.”

He said: “For junior criminal barristers to be paid below minimum wage, a median income of just £12,200 a year, is not only scandalous but it will choke off the supply of the next generation of advocates – that pool of advocates that will help society and become our future judges.

“And it means that victims and defendants will suffer years and years of waiting to get justice in court.”

Barrister Rebecca Filletti said the system is at “breaking point.”

Speaking from outside Manchester Crown Court, she said: “I work in excess of 18-hour days, I work weekends, I miss out on family things, and most of that work is work for which I don’t get paid and I feel I need to do to a good job for my clients.

“Today is the first day in my entire career I have not gone to court. I attend if I’m sick, I attend if I have got family commitments, and I would not have taken this decision lightly.

“The reason I have taken this decision is things need to change.”

How are courts running on strike days?

During previous strike action some crown courts across the two nations were running limited services, with criminal trials and other cases postponed or rescheduled.

Walkouts meant that some courtrooms sat empty, while others were only able to swear juries in before adjourning cases until later in the week, when lawyers were available.

What does the government say?

Responding to the barristers' decision to go on strike, justice minister Sarah Dines said: “This is an irresponsible decision that will only see more victims face further delays and distress.

“The escalation of strike action is wholly unjustified considering we are increasing criminal barristers’ fees by 15%, which will see the typical barrister earn around £7,000 more a year.”

Isn’t a 15% pay rise generous?

A CBA spokesperson said the 15% pay rise would not take effect 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.”

Essentially, the offer would not improve conditions for barristers for years potentially.

The Ministry of Justie previously said it had “repeatedly explained” to the CBA that backdating pay would require a “fundamental change” in how fees are paid, adding: “That reform would cost a disproportionate amount of taxpayers’ money and would take longer to implement, meaning barristers would have to wait longer for payment.”

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