The barrister strike is about protecting YOUR rights

Shaun Wallace addresses the rally supporting barristers’ industrial action outside the Supreme Court, London, 11 July 2022 Photo by MassiveEartha

The below is reproduced from a thread of tweets found here, published by a practising barrister. We are reproducing this here to share and raise awareness on this issue.

Barristers who work in our criminal courts have voted for an all out strike on 5 September. This is historic, and necessary. A barrister explains why we need to get behind this unprecedented action to secure access to justice for all.

This strike is about protecting your rights, whether you know it or not.

Here is why you should care:

Anyone can end up on the wrong end of a police investigation.

Anyone can be falsely accused.

Anyone can be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Anyone can be wrongly blamed for an accident. Or just in a bad set of circumstances during a vulnerable time in their life.

The police are only human: sometimes, they make mistakes. It could be you. It could be a family member, or a loved one.

Or you could be the victim of crime.

When it happens, your world will collapse. We have seen it happen to those who least expect it.

Barristers in criminal cases represent members of the public from all walks of life, charged with all manner of technical or straightforward offences, and with varying degrees of vulnerability.

Barristers also prosecute these cases.

The work can be harrowing. It is complex.

The stakes are high.

Yet in their first few years of practice, specialist criminal barristers who both prosecute and defend in our criminal courts are earning less than £13,000 a year.

Stick it out for the first few years, then?

Not quite.

On legal aid, barristers at all levels are paid a fixed fee and not an hourly rate for the work they do. They are often paid at less than minimum wage per hour. Written work is unpaid.

Hours of detailed preparation and meetings with clients are unpaid.

Even on these improper rates, barristers are not paid until the very end of the case.

Also, these rates should not be confused with what barristers can earn in other areas of practice, or when acting for private rates.

Specialist criminal barristers have not chosen their vocation because it is lucrative.

The rates are set by the Government, and in real terms earnings have suffered a 28 per cent cut over the last two decades.

Due to these working conditions, the system has lost a quarter of its specialist criminal barristers over the last five years.

This attrition rate is accelerating: 300 walked away last year alone.

This is a small, highly-skilled profession, worked beyond stretching point to ensure clients are properly represented.

But for many, it is impossible to sustain. The number of criminal specialists is now less than 2,300.

We see the results in real cases.

1,000 trials were aborted in the space of one year between March 2021 and March 2022, because there was no available prosecution or defence barrister. This was before a single day of strike action.

There is a crown court backlog of nearly 60,000 cases. Hundreds of thousands of people are waiting.

You could be one of them.

The alarm bells have been ringing for years.

If you found yourself under the immense pressure that comes with an impending threat to your liberty, you deserve an independent, specialist, fearless advocate to assist you through the maze that is criminal procedure and evidence.

How would you feel if those responsible for your liberty, or that of a family member, were paid less than minimum wage?

How would you feel if you could not access an independent advocate to represent you, and it meant you had to languish waiting for trial for years?

What if you were in custody whilst waiting for your trial?

Or you were the victim or witness to an offence and because there were no lawyers available, you had to wait five years for justice?

This is the current reality of our system.

If you are wealthy enough to afford the private rates of a barrister and solicitor, allowing for the other crumbling aspects of the criminal justice system, you will mostly get a fair shot.

But most members of the public cannot afford such an expense, particularly in more complex trials.

If resources are unequal, and your lawyer does not have sufficient means to consider your case in all its detail, injustice can result.

Innocent people are locked up, families destroyed, trust in the justice system undermined, courts and judges put under further pressure: we all suffer.

Because of this chaos, in December 2018, the Government launched an independent review to consider how the criminal legal aid system could be reformed to benefit the public.

Published on 1 December 2021, the Review’s fee analysis was limited up to 2019/20.

It did not consider the more dire circumstances in 2020/21.

Despite this, the Review found it was ‘difficult to see how the current situation could be sustained.’

The Review recommended an immediate increase of 15 per cent as ‘the minimum necessary as the first step to nurse ‘criminal legal aid back to health after years of neglect.’ It warned there was ‘no scope for further delay.’

Urgent, swift action was necessary, with follow up investment, to ‘allow the criminal justice system to function effectively.’

Nearly a year later, implementation has not followed.

Let that sink in: the government’s own review. Its own recommendation for urgent action. No proper action.

Criminal barristers continued to prosecute and defend in this collapsing system. But whether on strike or not, trials do not proceed.

Because there are not enough barristers or judges. There may not be sufficient court space. The system is unravelling at the seams.

We are now beyond waiting for the ceilings to collapse (sometimes literally in poorly-kept court buildings).

The system is rupturing, and real people are suffering.

That is why now over 90 per cent of criminal barristers voted for days of action. 79.54 per cent voted for an all out strike from 5 September.

This is to secure the bare minimum for the public and allow us to continue to represent you with skill and the necessary resources. Now.

The Ministry of Justice has said the most it would allow for members of the public to be properly represented in court when their liberty is at risk, is a future 15 per cent increase. This would only take effect for trials beginning deep into 2023/24 and afterwards – the complete opposite of ‘immediate’ action.

By then, how many will remain to dent the backlog? The rising cost of living also means this 15 percent rise will be more than extinguished by the time it is received.

An immediate increase to all fees including cases in the backlog is required, months after the Review’s urgent recommendations.

This is not generous. It is not competitive. It does not undo the cuts.

This is just a band-aid that will stop the exodus of the people who would represent you during your darkest days.

Walking out of court is not easy. We must consider each case carefully. We must consider our duties to the court, and to the administration of justice.

And our duties to you – the public.