Court cases halted as barristers strike in dispute over legal aid rates

Shropshire’s crown court faced major disruption as the first day of barrister strikes took place across the country.

Barristers across the country went on strike on Monday. Photo: Kirsty O'Connor/PA Wire
Barristers across the country went on strike on Monday. Photo: Kirsty O'Connor/PA Wire

The overwhelming majority of cases listed at the Shrewsbury court on Monday were unable to proceed with no defence barrister available.

A succession of criminal hearings were adjourned due to the impact of the walk-out, which is taking place due to a dispute over legal aid rates. During the morning session Judge Anthony Lowe was told on a number of occasions that defending barristers were not in attendance due to the industrial action, with cases put off to a later date.

Criminal barristers have argued that the length of time required to prepare for some cases means their legal aid hourly rate is below minimum wage. Yesterday was the first day of action, with a second planned today and then escalating involving increasing numbers of strike days over the coming weeks.

Barristers who joined the picket lines had been warned by England & Wales’ most senior judge, The Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett, that they could face misconduct proceedings if they did not attend court.

Stephen Scully, a solicitor with Shropshire firm Lanyon Bowdler, was working at Shrewsbury Crown Court and said around 85 per cent of the listing at the court had been affected by the action. He said: “The Bar’s position is shared by ourselves. Because of the chronic underfunding we have not got enough people to cover court hearings. People are leaving the profession due to the pay and the conditions.”

He added: “There was already a significant backlog in the courts before Covid, and we are now in the position where it is getting worse because of the lack of funding and people are leaving in their droves.”

Leading West Midlands QC Michelle Heeley has said the strike will lead to hundreds of criminal cases being postponed in the Midlands. However she said barristers, who during the strikes will not accept new cases or take on work for colleagues, felt the action was necessary.

Ms Heeley QC, leader of the Midland circuit of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA), which balloted on the action, said: “It goes against what we all believe in to walk out of court but they think if they don’t take action now nothing will change. There’s been huge underinvestment in the criminal justice system. We are not going to have enough barristers to prosecute and defend the most serious cases.”

She said the strike action would have led to dozens of criminal cases being postponed in the Midlands yesterday and it will add up to hundreds over the coming weeks.

Meanwhile a group of barristers have gathered outside the Old Bailey as part of the strikes. Around 50, many in their gowns and wigs, stood close to the court entrance, where a sign was held up listing their demands.

It read: “Raabed of justice. Pay for criminal bar daylight robbery.”

Leeds Combined Court was another court affected: Danny Lawson/PA Wire

Those there spoke of the need for a pay increase amid long working hours. One criticised the “unacceptable” pay and working conditions for those in the legal system.

Lucie Wibberley, a barrister and secretary of the Criminal Bar Association, speaking outside the Old Bailey, said: “We’re here to protest against the unacceptable pay and working conditions those working in the justice system are currently facing.

“Action will take place in the hope the Government comes to the negotiating table.”

Barristers are the “poor persons” of the legal system, the chairman of the Criminal Bar Association has said. Jo Sidhu QC, speaking outside the Old Bailey said: “Last year, we lost another 300 criminal barristers, why? Because they could not do this job anymore on what they were being paid, and for the hours that they were toiling.”

He went on: “We are not a privileged species, we are the poor persons of the justice system.

“Each and every one of the men and women standing here today and across this country make a decision that they would like to serve the public, as a prosecutor, as a defendant in order to deliver justice.”

Other crown courts affected included Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Manchester and Swansea.

The strike action is intended to last for four weeks, beginning with walkouts on Monday June 27 and Tuesday June 28, increasing by one day each week until a five-day strike from Monday July 18 to Friday July 22. Photo: Peter Byrne/PA Wire

Speaking outside Manchester Crown Court, Kirsty Brimelow, vice chair of The Criminal Bar Association, said: “The Criminal Bar Association has repeatedly warned the Government that the huge decline in real incomes at the criminal bar poses the most serious threat to the British legal system in decades.

“We have made our case over and over again to Government but our warnings continue to fall on deaf ears. They have no solution to saving the criminal justice system. This is a national crisis which is of Government making and it must be dealt with as a national emergency.

“We cannot allow further attacks on our profession when we know the reality of the crumbling courts and junior barristers who walked away long before this action.

“We take this action in the name of citizens of this country because it is their justice system that we are determined to protect. We will not sit idly by and watch its destruction.

“We are doing what we have been trained to do which is to fight for justice.”

A group of barristers have gathered outside Bristol Crown Court as part of strikes over pay and working conditions. Around two dozen, many in their gowns and wigs, stood close to the court entrance.

Barrister Kannan Siva described the strike as a “momentous day” and accused the Government of “abandoning” the criminal justice system.

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