Barristers have voted to stage an indefinite and uninterrupted strike in England and Wales that will begin next month.
Coinciding with the beginning of our next Prime Minister’s premiership, members of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) will walkout on September 5th. Until this point, members have been striking on alternative weeks in a dispute with the government over pay and in particular, legal aid funding.
Of the 2273 votes cast, 1808 members voted to escalate the strike, with only 258 in favour of continuing the current level of industrial action. Strikes have already delayed thousands of cases, leaving victims and the accused waiting longer for justice. The vast majority of crown court trials across England and Wales will be adjourned, while others could wholly collapse.
Why are Barristers Striking?
Vice chair of the CBA, Kirsty Brimelow QC described the strike as a “last-resort action”, saying: “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 only £1.1 million per month. Currently, it’s costing much more for the courts to sit empty.”
The CBA has reported that incomes have fallen nearly 30% over the past two decades, and that, in their first three years of practice, specialist criminal barristers make an average income of £12,200 after expenses. This has driven 22% of junior criminal barristers to leave the profession since 2016, with even junior corporate lawyers expecting to earn £100,000 per year from very early on in their careers.
The Ministry of Justice has offered a 15% uplift in fees, the minimum increase recommended by the criminal legal aid review, however the CBA has described this as insufficient as it would not apply to the backlog of 58,000 cases in crown courts.
In response to the 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.”
Labour leader Keir Starmer, himself a former barrister said that the government was failing to act to resolve industrial disputes, both from the CBA and the RMT: “I quite understand, whether it’s barristers or others, why people and how people are struggling to make ends meet.
“What I want to see is the government recognise that, do something about it, resolve these issues, in whichever sector they are, but also have bigger picture answers.”
The strikes, beginning on 5th September will be an instant headache for the new Conservative Prime Minister, whoever she may be.
The Government have so far been steadfast in their refusal to sit down with the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) Union to discuss their demands following their intermittent strikes, saying that this is for their employers to do. This is despite the fact that the government set the parameters under which transport operators work.
However, given that the government is responsible for paying legal aid fees, they do not have the option of playing this card. They will have no choice but to engage with the CBA.
With Liz Truss looking likely to become the next Prime Minister, this will be a key moment. In her campaign, following the disruption caused by recent transport strikes, she has pledged to get tougher on unions, and this will be put to the test on day 1.
This could spell an early victory or an early embarrassment.