Criminal barristers in England and Wales have voted to go on an all-out strike and victims’ advocates said the historic action is “entirely the government’s fault”.
Already log-jammed courts will face even further stress when barristers begin their indefinite, uninterrupted strike on September 5 – the same day the next prime minister will be announced.
Barristers have been striking on alternate weeks since June and 79% (1,808) of Criminal Bar Association (CBA) members who voted, support escalating the current action over government rates paid for legal aid cases.
Criminal barristers have been holding short strikes since June. Ministers have refused to negotiate on their key demands and the Independent reports that Dominic Raab the justice secretary, has not met with anyone from the CBA. Raab was in fact on holiday in Surrey when the strike ballot result was announced.
Barrister strike is ‘reprehensible’, says govt
“Barristers have had to endure collapses in their income and cuts and underfunding so that their income has decreased over 28% since around 2006,” said vice-chair of the CBA , Kirsty Brimelow QC.
“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 £1.1m per month.”
Brimelow told BBC Breakfast: “Currently it’s costing much more for the courts to sit empty.”
The government has called the barristers’ decision to escalate their strike, reprehensible”. Justice minister Sarah Dines said it “unwholly unjustified considering we are increasing criminal barristers’ fees by 15%, which will see the typical barrister earn around £7,000 more a year.”
The median income for a junior barrister is £12,200 per year after expenses. “That’s why they [barristers] cannot survive doing criminal work, and that’s why they’re walking away,” criminal barrister Michelle Heeley told BBC Five Live.
Victims commissioner Dame Vera Bland QC said the strike is the “latest symptom of a criminal justice system that is severely and recklessly underfunded.
“And it is victims [of crime] who are ultimately paying the price and will continue to suffer the longer this goes on.”
‘Tipping point for justice in this country’
There is a backlog of some 60,000 crown court cases, caused mostly by the decade of austerity and funding cuts compounded by the pandemic. Every week of the criminal barristers strike will see around 1,300 cases disrupted, including 300 trials, according to official figures.
The current strike action over alternate weeks will continue, meaning barristers will stop working on Friday (August 26).
The justice system is “already in crisis”, said London’s victim commissioner Claire Waxman adding: These strikes are not the cause of this justice crisis, but are the ultimate symptom from years of the government’s chronic under-resourcing, ignoring mounting evidence of the issues, and dismissing growing calls from those who know best,” she added.
“Many thousands of victims are going to be significantly impacted over the coming months, but many more have suffered through years of inaction. This is a tipping point for justice in this country.”
Law firms already paid £85m for Covid Inquiry that starts next year
Meanwhile, the UK government has already paid £85 million to private law firms and PR companies to prepare for the Covid inquiry.
Hearings don’t start until next summer but government departments who made key decisions during the pandemic have paid millions to hire leading law firms.
Current and former ministers will be grilled about controversial policies implemented through the pandemic and the Guardian reports the UK-wide inquiry “will be one of the most expensive” statutory public inquiries in history.
“If [the inquiry chair] Baroness Hallett allows powerful institutions to run up the costs with eye-wateringly expensive lawyers just to protect their reputations then the inquiry would be a shocking waste of time and money,” said the Covid Bereaved Families for Justice group.
As well as multi-million contracts for several law firms, the government has also paid £500,000 to Crest Advisory, “an agency founded by a former Downing Street adviser,” for “strategic communications”.