Criminal barrister strikes in England and Wales: protecting the future of the criminal bar
Alice Gregory - 05 September 2022
Following the government’s refusal to meet the CBA’s demands over salary, working conditions and legal aid, criminal barristers have voted to escalate strike action. From 5 September, criminal barristers in England and Wales will begin an all-out, indefinite strike. Anand Beharrylal, a KC at 2 Bedford Row Chambers, tells us that this action is ‘unprecedented’, even though such issues have existed at the criminal bar for decades.
The government insists that their offer of a 15% increase in legal aid is sufficient, although it would not take effect until late 2023 as it would not be applied to current cases. This increase adds up to an extra £7,000 on average for barristers, which would likely be invalidated by inflation by the time it comes into effect. “The legal rates presently paid to barristers is less than half the commercial rate that a privately paying client would pay,” Beharrylal explains, “even with a 25% increase, it will still remain far below the commercial rate.” For the CBA, their proposal of a 25% increase in legal aid (to be routinely monitored by an independent advisory board) is not only reasonable, but the bare minimum.
The cost-of-living crisis, high student debt, and trial expenses, mean that many junior barristers are simply not able to afford to work in the criminal bar. What’s more, legal aid is paid at the completion of a case, so, in the interim, barristers are left to cover their own court costs. Clearly, as Beharrylal tells us, passion for the job can only get you so far when you can’t make rent. Diversity among criminal barristers is being threatened as a result, as such low funding means that only the wealthy can afford to stay at the criminal bar. “We want our public institution to reflect the community it serves,” Beharrylal explains, “not a narrow pool of the wealthy.” Legal aid funds most of the work that junior barristers take on in the years they work to gain experience. The criminal bar relies on this experience to ensure that defendants are properly acquitted or convicted. If fewer junior barristers remain in the profession, justice may well be compromised in the future.
“The criminal bar remains a highly committed profession,” Beharrylal adds, “the direct action being taken by criminal barristers is primarily to ensure that we can continue to recruit people to the criminal bar and to retain junior barristers.” Those drawn to the criminal bar should, therefore, not be dissuaded from becoming criminal barristers. This need for direct action is only temporary, and barristers are fighting so that the criminal justice system works properly and will continue to do so in the future.