Criminal barristers vote in favour of all-out strike next month

UK Editor Paul Brand breaks down why barristers are going on strike and what the impact might be

Barristers have voted to go on an all-out strike in England and Wales as part of a row with the government over jobs and pay.

Members of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) have been walking out on alternate weeks but voted on Sunday for an indefinite, uninterrupted strike that will start on September 5.

Hours before the result was announced on Monday morning, vice chairwoman of the CBA Kirsty Brimelow QC said another barristers’ strike would be a “last-resort action” over a demand for less money than it costs the government for the courts to sit empty.

“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," she told BBC Breakfast.

Experienced criminal barristers currently earn an average of £55,900 to £63,900, after expenses. However, the starting income for their junior counterparts is £12,800.

Alongside pay, workloads have also prompted barristers to strike. There is currently a massive backlog, for which the pandemic is, in part, to blame. While the crown court backlog currently stands at 60,000 cases, it was at 38,411 before the first lockdown was imposed.

On Monday, Sir Peter Fahy, the former chief constable of Greater Manchester Police told Sky News that the backlog is behind a recent spate of violent crime.

"If you’re dealing with young criminals, crucially you get them into court quickly," he said. “If they are out on bail, the chances are that they’re going to commit more crime which puts more work back into the system and creates more victims.”

The barristers' decision comes just days after the latest set of walkouts by rail, Tube and bus workers. Additionally, eight days of strikes have commenced at Felixstowe, the UK's largest container port.

According to Ministry of Justice (MoJ) figures, more than 6,000 court hearings have been disrupted a result of the dispute over conditions and government-set fees for legal aid advocacy work.

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Data released under freedom of information laws show that during the first 19 days of industrial action – between June 27 and August 5 – there were 6,235 court cases disrupted, including 1,415 trials, across England and Wales.

Criminal barristers are due to receive a 15% fee rise from the end of September, meaning they will earn £7,000 more per year.

But there has been anger that the proposed pay rise will not be made effective immediately and will only apply to new cases, not those already sitting in the backlog waiting to be dealt with by courts.

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.”

Barristers demonstrate for better conditions and pay during a strike earlier this year. Credit: PA

Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales Dame Vera Baird QC said this was the “latest symptom of a criminal justice system that is severely and recklessly underfunded."

"And it is victims who are ultimately paying the price and will continue to suffer the longer this goes on," she added.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s World At One, Dame Vera said: “The under-funding of the courts, which has been systemic since long before the pandemic, is already leading to a lot of people thinking that their lives can’t remain on hold any longer and they are dropping out.

“That is inevitably going to happen more.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer stopped short of backing the strike, but said the government was doing “absolutely nothing” to resolve industrial disputes.

“I quite understand, whether it’s barristers or others, why people and how people are struggling to make ends meet,” the former director of public prosecutions told reporters in Walthamstow, London.

The MoJ 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.”