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Barristers vote to end strike action after accepting pay rise offer

Criminal Bar Association warns that barristers could strike again if government does not fulfil commitments

Thomas Kingsley,Matt Mathers,Lizzie Dearden
Monday 10 October 2022 09:52 BST
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Criminal barristers have narrowly voted to suspend a strike that disrupted thousands of court cases and caused defendants to be released from prison.

Just over 57 per cent of Criminal Bar Association (CBA) members accepted an offer from the Ministry of Justice over fees for defending people who cannot afford legal representation.

Defence barristers will return to work on Tuesday but the body warned that the criminal justice system still “sits on the cliff edge”, and they could vote to walk out again if the government does not fulfil its commitments.

The result was announced after High Court judges ruled that defendants accused of serious crimes would have to be released from prison at the end of legal time limits if the strike was not stopped by the end of next month.

Several judges had refused applications to extend custody time limits, including for alleged murderers, on the basis that delays caused by the absence of defence barristers were not a lawful reason to keep people in jail.

Court backlogs that were worsened because of government cuts to court sitting days and exacerbated by the pandemic have rocketed since the CBA started industrial action in June, with numerous trials being scheduled into 2024.

Ministry of Justice figures released before the dispute escalated to an all-out strike at the end of August suggested that for every full working week that criminal barristers walked out, around 1,300 cases, including 300 trials, would be disrupted.

The CBA’s action started with a two-day walkout in June before escalating to a total strike after the former justice secretary Dominic Raab refused to meet barristers or negotiate on their demands.

His successor, Brandon Lewis, met barristers last month and agreed to backdate a 15 per cent rise in criminal legal aid rates to cover ongoing cases stuck in the backlog, rather than just new ones.

An increase of “at least 15 per cent above present levels” with “no further delay” was the core recommendation of an independent review of legal aid that was published in December.

Its author, Sir Christopher Bellamy, said the review had been announced by the government three years previously and that underlying problems had been flagged “for many years before that”.

Following the result of the ballot on Monday, Mr Lewis said: “Since starting this job five weeks ago, my priority has been to end this strike action and reduce delays for victims, and I’m glad that barristers have agreed to return to work. 

“This breakthrough is a result of coming together and restarting what I hope to be a constructive relationship as we work to drive down the backlog and ensure victims see justice done sooner.” 

Criminal barristers gather outside the Supreme Court for a rally following the start of an indefinite strike action on 6 September 2022 (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

In a letter to members announcing the result of the ballot, the leaders of the CBA said they were hoping for a “new relationship” with the government.

“The criminal justice system remains chronically underfunded,” they added. “Barristers should not again have to endure working all hours to ensure that cases are brought to courts whilst the government pares criminal legal aid fees to the bone.

“The offer from the government is an overdue start. Its acceptance by barristers is on the basis that it is implemented.”

The CBA warned that a shortage of barristers, who have been leaving the criminal sector because of pay and conditions, will mean that cases cannot be prosecuted or defended.

“The underlying causes that compelled us to commence action, as a unified group, have not gone away,” the letter added.

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