The Criminal Bar Association (CBA) is carrying out indefinite strike action, escalating its protest to the government’s proposals on criminal legal aid. Since April, hundreds of barristers have adopted ‘no returns’ as part of a push for the government to uplift rates by 25%. In June this was extended to include days of:
- court walkouts
- refusing to accept new instructions
The action is expected to grind the system to a halt, with a backlog of over 60,000 cases not seen to and 6,000 court hearings disrupted. This includes many cases which are of a deeply urgent nature, including many held on remand awaiting trial who cannot afford to remain incarcerated indefinitely awaiting the opportunity to offer a defence to the allegations against them.
The strikes come in response to an ongoing crunch to the criminal bar which disproportionately affects junior members and those who take on low-fee legal aid work often for the most vulnerable defendants. The CBA has said that in the first three years of practice, a full time criminal barrister earns an average of £12,200 per year and given that the bar is primarily a self-employed profession they don’t have the additional protections of National Minimum Wage, maternity pay, holiday pay, sick pay etc.
It is not uncommon for junior members of the criminal bar, particularly those who have finished the period of pupillage (a year long training contract in which pay is protected by a pupillage award) to find themselves trying to scrape a living well below minimum wage despite an often overwhelming work load of serious and important cases. As a result recent reports suggests that as many as one in six young barristers are considering leaving the profession.
Whilst cuts to legal aid have had a hugely detrimental effect in the legal professionals the damage done to those who depend on legal aid representation is even more egregious. 46% of the British public say that they do not understand the legal aid system and do not know how to receive support. Without access to free, clear, early, legal advice, particularly in complex cases dealing with immigration, family, or litigation issues claimants and defendants often take disputes into the courtroom without the right preparation which only drives up costs, creates delays, and fails to provide just or fair results. It hardly feels necessary to point out that the majority of those dependant on legal aid are by definition the most vulnerable, those on low income backgrounds. Current government plans suggest that any person with over £1,000 in savings will be required to contribute to their legal costs. 72% of legal aid clients coming from black and other minority ethnic backgrounds, many are mothers, suffering from disability, or have other significant vulnerabilities which have contributed to their not being able to afford independent legal representation in the first place. These people will be the worst affected if legal aid cuts continue.
Cuts to legal aid came into effect on 1 April 2013 as part of the government’s plan to save £350 million a year. The changes meant that some types of cases, such as divorce, welfare benefits, child contact, housing law and employment were no longer eligible for public funds. At their introduction some 80% of the population were eligible for legal aid protection but in 2007, only 27% of the population was eligible and this has only continued to dwindle.
For further information on this topic or on any other legal area, please contact John Szepietowski or Kay Stewart at Audley Chaucer Solicitors on 01372 303444 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit our Linkedin page.
Gregory Horne September 2022