Abigail Cadman Kerr
The Criminal Bar Association (‘CBA’) is, like many other unions, carrying out indefinite strike action. However, it is no secret that barristers have received less support from the public due to common misconceptions about working conditions at the Criminal Bar. Abigail Cadman Kerr dives deeper into the legal profession, questioning why our criminal barristers are really striking and whether they are deserving of our support.
This year has been one of strike action. Many are on strike over poor working conditions exacerbated by the pandemic, but the issues criminal barristers have been facing started long before 2020.
A junior criminal barrister’s median annual income is £12,200
There are a lot of misconceptions about the wages of criminal barristers; law is often considered to be a high-ticket career path. But what is important to note is that, unlike other barristers who are self-employed – for example, those who work in commercial law – criminal barristers defending those who qualify for legal aid do not have any say in their fixed wage. Instead, it is the government who decides what they will get paid. These wages are often unsustainable; a junior criminal barrister’s median annual income is £12,200 in their first three years of practice. This follows the costs incurred during their undergraduate degree, additional post-graduate training, and pupillage – usually to the sum of tens of thousands of pounds.
Almost 40% of junior barristers [have chosen] to leave [the profession] in their first two years of practice
Alejandra Llorente Tascon says that criminal defence barristers, like herself, are paid between £91 and £126 for a standard hearing but that, with the additional expenses incurred, this works out as below minimum wage; barristers are not paid for their written work or travel expenses. This has led to many leaving the profession, with almost 40% of junior barristers choosing to leave in their first two years of practice, despite having spent a minimum of six years training for their role. The number of specialist criminal barristers has shrunk by a quarter in the last 5 years.
“This is not a ‘world-class justice system’ … It is not even a functioning justice system”
But these strikes are not just about pay, says the Secret Barrister; “[i]t is about so, so much more. The criminal justice system has been devastated by years of cuts and chronic underfunding. Every part of the system has been slashed to the bone”. Government cuts to legal aid have led to a 20% decrease in court staff, 25% decrease of Crown Prosecution Service employees, and 21,000 less police officers. This has led to huge delays in court cases long before the pandemic, as well as a variety of other problems. Kirsty Brimelow KC said; “[t]his is not a ‘world-class justice system’, as set out as the vision of the Ministry of Justice. It is not even a functioning justice system”.
Delays to court cases have created a very serious problem regarding access to justice. In 2021 alone, we saw a fifty percent increase in the number of trials which were adjourned because there was no available advocate. The BBC reported that, in the first three months of 2022, 370 scheduled trials were delayed due to a shortage of lawyers. Criminal defence solicitor, Stephen Davies, stated that, for an alleged theft, some parties have to wait up to 3 to 4 years between the arrest and day of trial. This can leave victims, and those wrongly accused, waiting years for an answer.
It is incredibly important that we support those working at the Criminal Bar as they … seek to improve access to justice for all
An independent government report concluded that “funding for criminal legal aid should be increased overall for solicitors and barristers alike as soon as possible to an annual level … of at least 15% above present years”. Following this, the government announced its intention to introduce a 15% pay rise at the end of September but, for criminal barristers, this was too little, too late.
Since 27th June, criminal barristers have been striking and, since April, have not been accepting ‘returned’ cases – where a barrister will fill in for another barrister who is unable to attend court. The CBA has also held a series of rallies across the country. They have several demands. First, a 25% prospective and retrospective increase to fees and hourly rates, meaning it would apply to the immense backlog of over 58,000 cases. As well as this, they’re also calling for payment for currently unpaid written work and for any work prepared if a trial is moved by the court to a date that a barrister cannot do. Finally, the CBA is demanding “the creation of an effective and independent pay review body to adjust fees periodically”.
The government’s response thus far has been limited to say the least, with previous Defence Secretary, Dominic Raab, labelling the strikes “unnecessary and irresponsible”. This is why it is incredibly important that we support those working at the Criminal Bar as they strike for better working conditions and seek to improve access to justice for all. I stand with our criminal barristers.
Abigail Cadman Kerr
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