Barristers strike gains support

JO SIDHU addressing striking barristers outside the Royal Courts of Justice yesterday morning as they stepped up their fight against being treated as cheap labour

‘OUR CRIMINAL justice system is in crisis, it’s no exaggeration to say it’s in meltdown,’ Criminal Bar Association (CBA) Chairman Jo Sidhu QC told a mass picket and rally of striking barristers and their supporters outside the Royal Courts of Justice yesterday morning.

‘Junior barristers are on only £12,500 a year,’ he warned. ‘People from ordinary backgrounds have to study for years and take out a large amount of debt to qualify for the bar. 300 people have left the profession already this year and we are losing people every single day.’

Criminal cases in courts across England and Wales ceased for a second week as barristers stepped up their strike action and pledged to continue into August and until victory.

Rallies took place outside the Royal Courts of Justice, in London, and Liverpool Crown Court as members of the CBA rejected the government’s 15% pay offer, saying it will not kick in immediately or apply to existing cases and demanded an immediate 25% increase for legal aid work.

At the London rally, Sidhu continued: ‘The 15% won’t come in until October. To add insult to injury is the misinformation and spin from the Ministry of Justice. This was all entirely predictable. The government pushed up the backlog in 2019.

‘The criminal justice system has been grinding to a halt for a number of years, not because of us but because the government has simply mismanaged the system and underfunded it considerably.’

Junior barrister Zaid Ahmed told the rally: ‘I earn £20,000 a year. I did not become a barrister for the money I did it for justice. But having to work seven days a week and still not having enough money to pay the rent, that’s why we are striking.’

The CBA’s four weeks of action began with a two-day strike last week, escalating to three-days this week and increasing by one day a week to a five-day strike from 18 July. Then, from August, barristers will hold week-long strikes on alternate weeks.

The CBA says a 28% cut in legal aid fees over the past decade has forced barristers out of the sector, with their numbers down a quarter compared to five years ago.

‘There are simply too few criminal justice barristers to prosecute, to defend and even to provide the judges the government relies on and the public expects to be there, to crack a record backlog and ensure victims of crime and the accused are not left in agonising limbo,’ says the CBA.

CBA analysis of government figures shows that in the year to March 2022 more than 1,000 criminal trials were postponed at the last moment because there was no prosecuting or defence barrister available.

Speaking out in support of the striking barristers, Hashem Puri, president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association, said: ‘We believe the years of underfunding have led to a crisis in the criminal justice system. Large numbers of barristers and criminal solicitors are leaving the profession because of the low pay. Our members are considering taking similar action and joining the bar in days of action.’

Before the end of the rally, criminal barrister Sasha Queffurus told News Line: ‘We are tired of being left behind when it comes to pay and fair remuneration. The long and the short of it is that for the work that we do we are rarely paid a fair wage. Junior barristers in particular are really struggling to make ends meet.’