About 2,500 barristers in England and Wales, who are critical to the criminal justice system, have begun strike action over worries about legal aid funding.
They will decline to fill in at the last minute for colleagues whose cases are running late.
Where does the Problem Come From?
The problem arises from an unresolved financing dispute with the government. The government asserted that the action would exacerbate existing backlogs.
The Criminal Bar Association (CBA) has blamed ministers for delaying the implementation of a 15% increase in legal aid rates, as proposed by an independent inquiry.
According to the CBA, 15% was the bare minimum required to prevent the system from collapsing. In accordance with figures released last week, 10% of criminal barristers engaged in legally aided work withdrew from those cases over the last year.
Additionally, they demonstrated that the government’s efforts to eliminate a country wide backlog are progressing at a very low pace.
The action, which has the support of approximately 90% of criminal barristers, will start sooner than expected.
The Burden Faced by Barristers
The informal mechanism at the center of this dispute is the legal equivalent of getting off the substitute’s bench in the 87th minute after another player hobbles off.
If a lawyer is unable to attend a commitment in another court due to a delayed case in one, a colleague offers to examine the case file – frequently overnight – and acts as their substitute.
Once a judge is satisfied that both the prosecution and defense are adequately represented in court, he or she can proceed with the case to verdict.
If no counsel is available, judges may simply postpone the hearing.
Within weeks, the adjournments will compete for slots with new cases and the backlog.
What is the worst-case scenario? All the prosecutions will be delayed for a number of months as judges struggle to determine how to proceed.
The government is outraged – yet many criminal attorneys, particularly the young, claim they are barely making a living and that there are now far too few of them remaining. The proof for that? Between October and December of last year, about 280 trials were postponed due to a scarcity of prosecutors and defense attorneys.
Recommendations by an Independent Review
Last year, an independent analysis warned that without an emergency infusion of £135 million into the legal aid system, courts might grind to a standstill.
The assessment, which was established in response to concerns that the system would collapse, concluded that governments should get funds to compensate for a significant loss of attorneys who are critical to the process.
Statement from the Ministry of Justice
The Ministry of Justice announced a £135 million annual increase in funding in criminal legal aid, which included criminal barristers’ fee increase, leading to a salary increase.
Justice Minister, James Cartlidge, acknowledged that the Court backlog is already shrinking as a consequence of prompt action and the hard work of legal professionals, and as a result of the ministry’s changes, the average criminal barrister will earn approximately £7,000 more per year.
The minister termed that a substantial wage increase and invited the Criminal Bar Association to collaborate with the ministry rather than causing an unnecessary disturbance in the courts, which will only delay justice for victims.