Barristers specialising in criminal law have voted to go on strike in a row over legal aid funding, with several days of court walkouts expected from next week. The planned action comes at a time of significant backlogs across crown courts.
In the crown courts, there are currently 58,271 cases backlogged, according to the planned action. As rail employees prepare to strike this week and amid rumours of dissatisfaction among teaching staff and NHS employers, barristers are the newest profession to go on strike.
According to the Criminal Bar Association, more than 2,000 members who responded in favour of industrial action. “This extraordinary commitment to the democratic process reflects a recognition among 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,” said leading barrister from the CBA.
Barristers are to strike for four weeks, beginning on 27 and 28 June, and increasing by one day each week, until a five-day strike on 18 and 22 July.
The CBA has refused to carry out “return work” and has made “repeated efforts” to persuade the government to increase criminal lawyers’ fees by 15% immediately, but has been disappointed. Lawyers have warned the criminal justice system is in crisis after a 43% fall in real terms in the legal aid budget since 2004-05.
The justice minister said the decision by the Criminal Bar Association to reject the 15% pay increase was disappointing, and that the Ministry of Justice was increasing investment in criminal legal aid by £135m a year.
If barristers refuse to appear at scheduled hearings while having previously agreed to represent a defendant, according to a prominent UK judge, Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett of Maldon, it “may amount to professional misconduct.”
Cases involving non-attendance should be sent to the Senior Presiding Judge’s Office so they can choose whether to notify the Bar Standards Board, he said.
Insisting that judges ask the defendants if they have consented to their barrister missing the hearing and whether the CPS should decide whether to make an application for wasted costs, the judge said “The question of whether a failure to attend amounts to professional misconduct will then be a matter for a disciplinary process.”