It is 2030 and there have been no downsides from paying barristers peanuts.
Criminal barristers in England and Wales have ended their strike over abject pay, provoking dismay among junior barristers who wanted to reject the government's deal.
The barristers went on indefinite strike six weeks ago in protest at the UK government's "insufficient" support for legal aid. They revealed how chronic underfunding meant they were earning as little as £139 a case, and in some instances less than £20,000 a year.
I became a criminal barrister in 2019. That year I earned £17,300. In 2020 I earned £16700. In 2021 I earned £20,090. At the end of every month I spend more money than I make. This is why I am striking. @TheCriminalBar #barristerstrike #supportthecriminalbar #strike— Zayd Ahmed (@lawyerzayd) June 27, 2022
Criminal barristers initially rejected the government's proposal to raise the legal aid budget by 15%. Jo Sidhu KC, then the chair of the CBA, told RollOnFriday that rocketing inflation would wipe out the increase before it ever reached the barristers' threadbare pockets.
Calling for a 25% rise, Sidhu said criminal barristers had "already suffered an average decrease in our real earnings of 28%" over the past 20 years.
An impasse was reached when the Ministry of Justice under Dominic Raab refused to budge, and rejected calls to apply any fee increase to the backlog of 60,000 cases jamming up the courts. Raab "expressly slammed the door shut on any negotiation with the CBA", said Sidhu.
But after new PM Liz Truss binned Raab, incoming Justice Secretary Brandon Lewis reopened talks and agreed that a 15% rise could apply to the backlog. He also offered additional payments for court preparation work which criminal barristers said they were undertaking for unsustainably low fees.
The revised offer prompted 57% of the 2,605 CBA members who voted in the CBA's ballot to take the deal, with 43% tuning it down.
Mark Fenhalls KC, Chair of the Bar Council, said he was pleased the deal passed and said the MoJ's offer was "the culmination of many months of work and pressure, and unprecedented personal sacrifice by barristers".
Lewis said he was "glad that barristers have agreed to return to work" and characterised the deal as the two sides "coming together and restarting what I hope to be a constructive relationship".
But some junior criminal barristers who voted 'no' called the truce a disaster. Kate Riekstine, a barrister at Rose Court Chambers, said "I feel so broken. And let down. And hurt".
"I honestly think we signed the death warrant for the criminal bar", Riekstone told the Guardian. Describing how she was now considering leaving law to become a social worker, because “at least you get sick pay and annual leave”, Riekstone said all she had wanted was for criminal practice to "be survivable and I feel like we’ve lost that now".
Matthew Ryder KC pointed to a suspected generational split, with older barristers putting up with a 15% rise as they had banked most of their earnings, paid off their mortgage and were on their way to retirement, while younger barristers could not make the figures add up to justify spending the rest of their careers in criminal law.
Ryder said, "I’ve heard many say younger barristers voted to stay on strike to secure decent legal aid into the future, while older practitioners voted to take what they could now".
He predicted, "Years from now, when we look back at this moment, history won’t be kind to those older briefs".