Criminal barristers to strike next week over legal aid funding row
- Credit: Charlotte Bond
The government's "lack of engagement" over legal aid funding has forced criminal barristers into strike action, a top Suffolk QC has said.
Simon Spence QC said the promised strike action, which was announced on Monday following a ballot of Criminal Bar Association (CBA) members, would cause "a lot of disruption".
The CBA, which represents barristers in England and Wales, said several days of court walkouts will begin from next week.
The disruption is likely to have a knock-on effect on the current case backlog at Ipswich Crown Court.
Barristers are the latest profession to go on strike, ahead of planned action by rail workers later this week, and reports of unrest among teaching staff and NHS employees.
Mr Spence, who lives in Suffolk, said: "It's going to cause a lot of disruption over the summer.
"It's not something we want to do, it's not something any of us are keen to do but I'm afraid the government's lack of engagement has forced us into this position.
"We have cooperated for years and years, and particularly through Covid to keep the system going, and we've reached a stage where we're having to say, 'I'm sorry, enough is enough'."
In April, CBA members voted in favour of refusing to accept returns – where a barrister steps in to represent a defendant whose original barrister is unable to attend court.
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The CBA said it also made "repeated efforts" to persuade the government to honour the recommendations of the Criminal Legal Aid Review to increase their fees by 15% immediately, but have been disappointed.
Mr Spence added: "We are a profession, no different from doctors, nurses, teachers, and members of the armed forces. We deserve some respect, and we deserve to be paid properly for the work we do because anybody who goes to court knows it's not easy work.
"We're dealing with defendants who are at times not very pleasant, it involves long hours, which are sometimes quite stressful, and none of that, we think, is properly reflected in the rates of pay and the way we're treated."
Jo Sidhu QC and Kirsty Brimelow QC from the CBA said: "This extraordinary commitment to the democratic process reflects a recognition amongst criminal barristers at all levels of call and across all circuits that what is at stake is the survival of a profession of specialist criminal advocates and of the criminal justice system which depends so critically upon their labour.
"Without immediate action to halt the exodus of criminal barristers from our ranks, the record backlog that has crippled our courts will continue to inflict misery upon victims and defendants alike, and the public will be betrayed."
The strike action is intended to last for four weeks, beginning with walkouts on Monday and Tuesday June 27 and 28, increasing by one day each week until a five-day strike from Monday, July 18 to Friday, July 22.
It means cases at which barristers are required will likely have to be postponed, including crown court trials.
James Cartlidge, justice minister and South Suffolk MP, said: “This is a disappointing decision by the Criminal Bar Association, considering less than 50% of CBA members voted in support of the option likely to cause the most disruption.
"The 15% pay increase we consulted on would mean a typical criminal barrister earning around £7,000 extra per year and only last week I confirmed we are moving as quickly as possible to introduce fee rises by the end of September.
“We encourage the Criminal Bar Association to work with us, rather than escalate to unnecessary strike action, as it will only serve to harm victims as they are forced to wait longer for justice.”