Barristers specialising in criminal court cases in England and Wales will start strike action on Monday over what they claim is inadequate government funding for their work, in a move that is expected to disrupt trials.
The industrial action by self-employed barristers who represent defendants in trials comes at a crucial time for the government: it is already contending with strikes by rail workers and is braced for walkouts by public sector staff.
Ministers are also seeking to clear a backlog of crown court trials that has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic: it has risen from 40,000 in March 2020 to 58,271 in April 2022.
The Criminal Bar Association, which represents 2,400 barristers, organised a ballot on industrial action because those involved in defence work are angry at the government’s reform of legal aid fees that are paid to them. Strike days will be spread over the next four weeks.
Sir Christopher Bellamy, a former judge, concluded last December in a report commissioned by the government that the criminal justice system needed an immediate £135mn a year extra to stem the exodus of younger legal aid barristers, who earn as little as £12,200 per annum.
The government plans a 15 per cent legal aid fee uplift from October and says a typical criminal barrister will receive £7,000 a year extra.
However, the Criminal Bar Association says more money is needed, partly because legal aid fees have not kept pace with inflation for years.
Dominic Bell, 56, a barrister for 30 years, is among those joining a protest on Monday outside the Old Bailey in London. Other demonstrations are expected in Bristol, Cardiff, Manchester and Leeds.
Bell said he had “never known anger like it in the criminal bar”, adding: “We are losing people. When I came into the profession it was a reasonably paid job, but the fees have been chopped away and reduced.”
Nick Worsley, 46, a Leeds-based barrister of more than 20 years, will also be walking out. “The government keeps saying we have one of the best legal systems in the world, but it is crumbling and dying on its feet,” he said.
Dominic Raab, justice secretary, said: “It’s regrettable that the Criminal Bar Association is striking, given only 43.5 per cent of their members voted for this particular, most disruptive, option.
“I encourage them to agree the proposed 15 per cent pay rise which would see a typical barrister earn around £7,000 more a year. Their actions will only delay justice for victims.”
The judiciary has said it will not enter into the dispute. However, Ian Burnett, lord chief justice for England and Wales, has said in an internal note to judges that if barristers do not attend scheduled court hearings after accepting instructions from a client, “this may amount to professional misconduct”.
That has angered barristers. More than 70 Queen’s counsel, some of the most experienced criminal barristers, said in a letter to The Times newspaper that Burnett’s guidance was being seen “as an attempt to intimidate us”.