Dozens of trials across crown courts in England and Wales were disrupted on Monday as hundreds of criminal defence barristers walked out in protest over government legal aid rates.
An estimated 200 barristers and dozens of solicitors gathered outside London’s Old Bailey on Monday as strikes began over cuts to their pay. There were also protests outside courts in Bristol, Cardiff, Manchester and Leeds.
An independent report last year found that the criminal justice system needed an extra £135mn a year to help stem the exodus of younger legal aid barristers, who earn as little as £12,200 per annum. The number of specialist criminal barristers has shrunk by a quarter in the past five years.
The government has proposed a 15 per cent fee uplift to legal aid fees saying this amounts to an extra £7,000 a year for a typical criminal barrister. The rates will only apply to new cases entering the justice system after October.
But the Criminal Bar Association, which represents 2,400 self-employed advocates, said the raise falls short as the fee increases will take months to reach barristers’ pockets because advocates are only paid when a trial ends.
According to the CBA, there has been a 28 per cent decline in barristers’ real incomes over the past 20 years as fee rates have failed to keep up with inflation.
Lucie Wibberley, secretary of the Criminal Bar Association, on Monday addressed barristers outside the Old Bailey. “Our precious criminal justice system is in crisis,” she told them.
“Be under no illusions this is a fight for the soul of the criminal bar and our criminal solicitor colleagues and this is a fight we are going to win,” she added.
Many crown court hearings — such as a plea and trial preparation hearing which attracts a £126 fee — are paid on a fixed fee basis. This means barristers can sometimes pay out more in train fares than they earn for pre-trial hearings.
Jo Sidhu QC, chair of the CBA, told the crowd outside the Old Bailey that the justice system had reached “a crisis of epic proportions”.
“Last year, we lost another 300 criminal barristers. Why? Because they could not do this job any more on what they were being paid, and for the hours that they were toiling,” he said.
Alejandra Llorente Tascon, a junior barrister, told the assembled lawyers: “We are on our knees, we cannot survive on below minimum wage. We cannot survive with the way in which we are being paid.”
The barristers’ action comes at a crucial time for the government, which is facing a wave of wider industrial unrest while battling to clear a backlog of crown court trials that rose from 40,000 in March 2020 to 58,271 in April.
Dominic Raab, justice secretary and deputy prime minister, said the action would “only delay justice for victims.” “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,” he said.