On the flipside, a talented ballet dancer might emerge from these strikes
Criminal barristers have commenced "uninterrupted strike action", as their pay row with the government intensifies.
In June, CBA members voted to take further industrial action, starting with walkouts for two days a week, which escalated over the summer. The protests have now ramped up, as criminal barristers have decided to strike continuously and indefinitely, from this week.
The CBA is protesting against the government's plans to raise the legal aid budget by 15%, which the association deems to be insufficient.
The government's proposal follows an independent review by Sir Christopher Bellamy, who recommended a 15% fee rise as the “minimum necessary" to "sustain the criminal Bar going forward”. However, the CBA is demanding a hike of 25%, and it also wants any fee increases to apply to existing cases (as the government's proposed uplift only applies to future matters).
When the strikes started in the summer, Jo Sidhu KC, the then chair of the CBA, told RollOnFriday that due to inflation hitting a 40-year high, the government's proposal of a 15% rise in fees would be "more than extinguished by the time we receive it." He said that criminal barristers had "already suffered an average decrease in our real earnings of 28%" over the last two decades, when taking into consideration inflation.
This week, Sidhu told RollOnFriday: “Since my last and only meeting with Dominic Raab in November 2021, there has been no effort by Government to find a resolution to this ongoing dispute. In fact, the Ministry has expressly slammed the door shut on any negotiation with the CBA. We have therefore been forced to escalate our industrial action to an indefinite strike."
Sidhu added: "There is only one way to stop this nightmare for victims and defendants alike, and that is to introduce an immediate increase of 25% to pitifully low fee rates and pay us for the work we actually do rather than to use us as cheap labour to reduce a record backlog of 60,000 cases that is almost entirely of the government’s own making.”
Mark Fenhalls QC, chair of the Bar Council, told RollOnFriday: “The Bar Council continues to call for urgent additional funding to address the crisis in the criminal justice system so that the public gets the service it deserves." He added: "A change at the very top of Government offers a chance to find new solutions.”
Law Society of England and Wales vice president Lubna Shuja said: “Solicitors share barristers’ concerns about the collapsing criminal justice system." She added: "Our members are not striking but leaving altogether and action is needed now before it’s too late to turn the tide of solicitors and firms leaving criminal defence work.”
However, Justice Minister Sarah Dines criticised the striking barristers, saying: “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 percent, which will see the typical barrister earn around £7,000 more a year.”
As a further sign of a fractured relationship between criminal barristers and the government, the CBA has accused the Lord Chancellor Dominic Raab of making a "direct request" for striking barristers' names to be provided to the Ministry of Justice.
Mishcon de Reya is acting pro bono for the CBA, and asked the Information Commissioner to open an investigation into "concerns that the Ministry of Justice...was unlawfully processing barristers' personal data."
A statement by Mishcon said that its request "followed initial reports indicating that court staff had been asked to report the names of barristers who do not attend court owing to the ongoing barristers’ action."
Mischon claims that "information subsequently disclosed to the CBA and shared with the Commissioner shows that – whether or not he requested actual names be given to him personally – Mr Raab did direct the collection in the first place. Internal court service emails state that the order to collect the data was '…a direct request from the Deputy Prime Minister with full knowledge of the downsides…'."
However, the firm added: "It is understood that despite this direction request, no names were ultimately directly shared with Mr Raab."
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson denied the allegations, saying: “It is categorically untrue that the Justice Secretary or Ministry of Justice has requested the names of any barristers.”
Kirsty Brimelow KC, Chair of the CBA, commented: “It would have been a better discharge of ministerial duties for the Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Secretary to meet with the CBA and resolve the ongoing barrister action. We are seeking to prevent the complete collapse of the criminal justice system – the door remains open.”
* Returns work refers to cases taken on by barristers which have been 'returned' from another barrister for various reasons, such as a diary clash or a case being rescheduled etc. There is no professional obligation for a barrister to accept such work, but they have traditionally done so as a gesture of goodwill to prop up the criminal justice system.