I’m a barrister, this is why I’m going ‘on strike’ from today

This is not a government taking the state of its criminal justice system seriously, we have had enough

Tim Kiely
Tuesday 12 April 2022 09:19 BST
It is not an action we have taken lightly
It is not an action we have taken lightly (Getty Images)

From today, the overwhelming majority of members of the Criminal Bar Association (including myself) has voted to adopt a policy of ‘no returns’ on our cases. It’s the closest thing that we largely self-employed professionals have to going on strike.

This means that when a barrister instructed on a case becomes unavailable for whatever reason – such as when another case overruns – any barrister following this policy will not be available to take on the case.

We know this will lead to further delays and breakdowns within the criminal justice system. We do this knowing full well that, without the goodwill and sense of duty that barristers show when they make themselves available to take on cases – often at short notice and for comparatively little remuneration – much of our criminal justice system ceases to function.

It is not an action we have taken lightly. But it’s a mistake to think it was functioning even remotely as it should, under the status quo.

Over the last five years, the criminal Bar has lost a quarter of its full-time jurors and QCs, with many citing stress and inadequate remuneration as among the key factors.  It is estimated that some 23% of criminal barristers work more than 60 hours a week in their first three years, yet still earn a median of £12,200 per year after expenses, it is small wonder even the most public-spirited of us find we can’t continue.

The government’s Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid, recommended in 2021 that the criminal justice system needed extra investment. There needed to be, the report said, a “substantial increase in the remuneration available” both for firms doing legal aid work and for barristers, as well as structural reform of the fees scheme to ensure work was properly and swiftly remunerated. Without this, the “sustainable pool of advocates” on which the system relies might dry up, it said. The perception that there is “little future“ in criminal legal aid must be corrected “if the [criminal justice system] is to function… let alone thrive”, it said.

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Much of the legal profession has been saying as much for years, even before the pandemic. Yet rather than recognising the precarious state of its justice system, and supporting the professionals who keep it running, successive governments – cheered on by hostile sectors of politics and the press – have often found it more convenient to blame lawyers for failures.

Apparently we are not public servants doing vital work, but “fat cats”, “do-gooders”, and occasionally – with barely a squeak of protest from the Lord Chancellor – “enemies of the people”.

The Ministry of Justice’s own proposed response to this slow-motion disaster, when you strip away the spin and look at the actual impact of its proposed £135m injection, falls some way short of the bare minimum identified by the Independent Review. Barristers may not see any real increase in their legal aid income until 2024.

This is not a government taking the state of its criminal justice system seriously.

And so, until the government takes justice as seriously as we do, here we are. There can be no more excuses.

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