Strike action to cause further backlog to crown court cases

GV - Ipswich Crown Court

Criminal barristers in England and Wales voted overwhelmingly to take industrial action in protest over levels of legal aid funding. - Credit: Archant

The backlog in cases at Ipswich Crown Court and in crown courts across the country is set to get worse with the start of strike action by criminal barristers this week in protest at pay and the "crisis in the criminal justice system".

Last month criminal barristers in England and Wales voted overwhelmingly to take industrial action in protest over levels of legal aid funding.

Some defendants at Ipswich Crown Court are already having to wait up to a year for a trial date because of a build up of cases largely due to the coronavirus pandemic and the strike action is likely to add to the already substantial backlog in the crown courts, which stood at nearly 60,000 in figures published last month.

The ballot by the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) in March saw 94% of votes in favour of refusing to accept returns – where a barrister steps in to represent a defendant whose original barrister is unable to attend court.

The CBA claims the criminal justice system is chronically underfunded and “creaking at the seams” after a decade of cuts and that this underfunding has led to an "alarming exodus" of criminal barristers, with the system teetering on the brink of collapse.

It claims the number of specialist criminal barristers has shrunk by a quarter in the last five years and the crisis is set to get worse with a Bar Council survey in October 2021 finding that 25% of criminal barristers intend to leave. 

The no returns action is aimed at urging the government to bring in a "substantial improvement to fees" for legal aid work.

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"In responding to the recommendations of the Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid [CLAR], government has manifestly failed to recognise the scale of the crisis and to act with the urgency required," the CBA said.

It said the government has not met the 15% rise in rates the for legal aid as recommended by an independent review that, the body said, was the absolute minimum needed to stop the criminal justice system from collapsing.

With such large numbers of criminal barristers leaving the job, the CBA said there was a risk the backlog of cases growing even bigger. And this means fewer people will be prosecuted or get the legal help they deserve.

The “no returns” policy only applies to legally aided cases.