Lawyer Monthly - August 2022

WWW.LAWYER-MONTHLY.COM EXPLORING THE UK BARRISTERS’ STRIKE 28 The Background It is broadly agreed that legal aid services in the UK have been in decline for a significant amount of time. Following the implementation of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 – a statute aimed at reducing then record levels of per capita spending on legal aid – the sector has been severely affected by austerity measures curtailing the availability and provision of legal aid in many cases where it previously applied. This has contributed to a legal aid crisis that barristers say has brought the justice system “almost to a standstill”. With less funding available, lawyers handling criminal cases have faced far lower levels of remuneration, with Criminal Bar Association (CBA) chair Jo Sidhu finding that junior barristers in the first three years of their practice are currently earning just £12,000 per year, or £6.25 per hour. The lack of sufficient legal aid fees has been cited by large numbers of lawyers who have quit publicly funded criminal work, which has led in turn to the formation of so-called ‘legal aid deserts’ where access to key areas of law is unavailable for large swathes of the population. There is also a significant backlog of cases across the country, with upwards of 358,000 still outstanding at magistrates’ courts and upwards of 58,000 at crown courts, with fears that the latter number may grow to as much as 70,000 by the end of summer. These concerns were investigated by Sir Christopher Bellamy QC’s Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid. The review recommended, among other measures, an increase in legal aid fees across most schemes. In response, the government proposed a fee increase of 9% for criminal solicitors from September onwards; 40% lower than the minimum level recommended by the review. The CBA warned that this funding increase would be insufficient following severe cuts over the past decade – particularly as it would not apply to any of the 58,271 cases comprising those already outstanding. “The existing rates will remain on all of the cases stuck on this record backlog until they conclude, which may be many years away,” a spokesperson for the organisation said. What is Happening? In June, 80% of the CBA’s 2,000 members voted to strike over the government’s proposed reform package. Picket lines were established at crown courts across England and Wales, including those in Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Leeds, Manchester and the Old Bailey in London. The barristers are seeking a fee rise of 25% to begin to compensate for years of reductions, rather than the minimum amount decided upon in the package. The strike action was originally billed to last for four weeks, beginning on Monday 27 and Tuesday 28 June and escalating by one day each week, culminating in a five-day strike between Monday 18 and Friday 22 July. However, the strikes are still ongoing as of 28 July with no resolution having been reached. The action is set to continue for the remainder of the week, then on a week-on, week-off basis until an accord is reached. The Ministry of Justice has hit out against the action. “The current strike is now forcing victims to wait for justice, despite a generous £7,000 pay rise for the typical criminal barrister,” a spokesperson said. “We encourage barristers to put victims first and prevent any further delays.”

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