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 begun a second week of strike action in a dispute over pay and conditions.

During the first week of strikes, 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.

It comes just weeks after Britain was mired in transport chaos during a nationwide strike by rail workers and amid reports teachers and nurses and considering their own walkouts.

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?

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.

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

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.

Last week, Kirsty Brimelow, vice chair of the CBA, said from outside Manchester Crown Court: “The Criminal Bar Association has repeatedly warned the government that the huge decline in real incomes at the criminal bar poses the most serious threat to the British legal system in decades.

“We have made our case over and over again to government but our warnings continue to fall on deaf ears.

“They have no solution to saving the criminal justice system. This is a national crisis which is of government making and it must be dealt with as a national emergency.

“We cannot allow further attacks on our profession when we know the reality of the crumbling courts and junior barristers, who walked away long before this action.

“We take this action in the name of citizens of this country because it is their justice system that we are determined to protect. We will not sit idly by and watch its destruction.

“We are doing what we have been trained to do, which is to fight for justice.”

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?

Some crown courts across the two nations are running limited services, with criminal trials and other cases postponed or rescheduled from Monday.

Monday’s walkout 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 are available.

What does the government say?

Downing Street has urged striking barristers to accept a pay offer and end any impact on victims.

Secretary of State for Justice Domenic Raab has been critical of the strike action. Credit: PA

Barristers are staging court walkouts for several days from Monday in a dispute over legal aid funding.

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.

A No 10 spokesperson said: “The Justice Secretary himself has said we encourage them to agree the proposed 15% pay rise which would see a typical barrister earn around £7,000 a year more, so our message would be similar.

“We urge those barristers to take that pay offer and ensure that victims don’t have to wait any longer for justice than they already have.”

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.

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