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Legal aid: why barristers are on strike

Ministry of Justice accused of ‘dragging feet’ over recommended rise in funding

Thousands of criminal barristers in England and Wales are going on strike from today over low pay and the state of legal aid funding in the UK.

Data from the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) shows that 22% of junior criminal barristers have quit since 2016 and the number of junior barristers specialising in crime fell by 11% between 2016-17 and 2019-20, from 2,553 to 2,273, said The Times.

A major factor for this is low pay. Newly trained criminal barristers earned a median pre-tax profit of just £12,200 in 2019-20, according to Garden Court North Chambers, a collection of human rights barristers. By comparison, the average median household income in the UK for the same year was £30,500. 

Ministers ‘dragging their feet’

The CBA has accused ministers of “dragging their feet” over implementing a recommended 15% rise to legal aid – a fundamental part of the justice system in England and Wales, which enables people who cannot afford legal representation to access a lawyer. 

The rise was recommended as part of an independent review, which said an extra £135m a year was needed to nurse the sector back to health. It was described by the CBA as the “bare minimum needed to stop the system from collapsing”, reported the BBC

But The Law Society Gazette reported last month that an analysis of the Ministry of Justice’s proposals found that criminal barristers would only receive a 9% rise, rather than “the often-quoted 15%”. 

“The government response sends a clear message that the Ministry of Justice is simply not serious about tackling that crisis,” said Law Society president I. Stephanie Boyce in a statement. “The overall package is woefully short of the minimum identified as necessary to keep the network of criminal defence services functioning.”

Over the years, legal aid funding has been cut and frozen, with the CBA suggesting the real incomes for criminal defence advocates have fallen by 28% over the past two decades. According to The Times, 83% of criminal barristers “incurred personal debt or used savings during the coronavirus pandemic”.

Strike action

From today, nearly 2,500 criminal barristers will impose a “no-returns” policy, which The Times explained will mean “refusing cases passed to them by other barristers who were set to appear but cannot do so because another trial has overrun”. 

This is likely to have a ripple effect within the criminal justice system, stopping other trials and heaping “more delays on a system already suffering backlogs from the pandemic”. The Daily Mail reported that more than 60,000 cases are already waiting to be heard in England and Wales.

According to the BBC, around 90% of criminal barristers support the strike action. 

“We have already lost too many of our colleagues who can no longer afford to maintain their commitment to criminal work and who have left our ranks out of desperation and despair,” said CBA chairman Jo Sidhu.

“Every day we are losing more… The future viability and diversity of the criminal bar is already imperilled.”

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