Criminal barristers in England and Wales have voted to suspend their strike action on 10 October 2022 after voting to accept the government deal on legal aid. The government had proposed the deal on September 29 2022. On 5 September 2022, the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) began indefinite strikes, and demanded an immediate 25% increase in legal aid. Currently, there are over 60,000 cases awaiting trial. Prior to 5 September, CBA members had been striking on alternate weeks in their disputes with the government.
The strikes can be attributed to falling real wages for criminal barristers. CBA chairman Jo Sidhu stated that over 300 specialist barristers had quit in 2021 as “they could not live anymore on what they were being paid, and for the hours that they were toiling.” The falling real pay has also led to fewer barristers joining criminal law and an increasing backlog of cases, which has caused justice to be delayed.
Since 2006, the CBA said that criminal barristers have seen real earnings fall by 28% since 2006. This has been partly responsible for the reduction in the number of criminal barristers—roughly 25%—compared to five years ago. CBA blamed low legal aid fees and the stress of working in an under-resourced and dysfunctional system for discouraging those considering a career in criminal law. For instance, criminal barristers are responsible for paying their own travel and office expenses, which means that those starting in practice often find that they are working for free or paying to work.
Lawyers working in private corporate law can expect to earn around £100,000 annually from very early on in their careers, with Vinson and Elkins paying newly qualified solicitors £110,000 annually. On the other hand, criminal barristers who have been practising for two or less years were paid an annual median of £18,800 after travel expenses were deducted. The average salary for a criminal barrister with 10 to 19 years of experience is £78,000. The pay disparity is made clear with the fact that a criminal barrister with over ten years of experience can expect to earn half of what a newly qualified commercial solicitor would expect to earn annually.
Curtis Dean Myrie, who spoke to the Guardian about his experience as a criminal barrister, said that contrary to public perception of barristers being rich, he “earned little more than minimum wage.” Myrie, who is 41 years old, said that he has resorted to living with his parents and has cut out all non-essential expenses.
The backlog of criminal cases waiting to be heard had increased from around 35,000 by the start of 2019 to over 60,000 by the time indefinite strikes were called. This burden on the justice system has exponentially increased, with over 250 courts closing since 2010; a figure that amounts to half of all magistrate courts. In practice, this has meant that barristers, solicitors, and victims have to travel further to get to court, which alongside the rising cost of fuel, has heavily compounded the dampening on criminal barristers' real wages and quality of life.
These factors result in victims facing a deeply dysfunctional justice system. As of September 2022, more than 5,800 victims of serious violent and sexual crimes have had to wait over a year for their cases to be heard in court. In the second quarter of 2022, the median time from offence to completion was 189 days, compared to the 175 median days in the first quarter of 2020.
The initial offer by the government to increase fees by 15% for only new cases from the end of September 2022 was rejected by the CBA. Later negotiations with justice secretary Brandon Lewis succeeded in securing a £54 million government investment in the criminal bar and solicitors. In addition, the 15% increase in fees was extended to be applied to most cases going through the crown court system.
Following former justice secretary Dominic Raab’s refusal to meet with barristers or negotiate on their demands, the CBA’s strike began with a two-day walkout in June 2022 before gradually escalating towards a total strike. It seems that then-justice secretary Brandon Lewis’s willingness to negotiate was critical in resolving the dispute and ending the strikes. Upon hearing about the ballot’s result confirming the end of the strikes, then-justice secretary Lewis said “Since starting this job five weeks ago, my priority has been to end this strike action and reduce delays for victims, and I’m glad that barristers have agreed to return to work.”
However, Jane Croft from the Financial Times questions whether the narrow margin of the vote on the revised deal (with 57% voting in favour of the deal) will make a sufficient impact on the lives of junior barristers, many of whom voted against the deal. While 31% of experienced barristers earn more than £150,000 annually, the 15% increase in fees may not be enough to keep junior barristers like Myrie in the profession.
That being said, the resolution of the dispute between criminal barristers and the government will be welcome news to victims awaiting justice and barristers struggling with low pay. Whether the deal struck between the CBA and the government will persuade those struggling to join and to stay in the field of criminal law remains uncertain for now.