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Criminal lawyers in UK stage walkout in dispute over govt. funding amid soaring cost of living

Criminal barristers strike outside the 'Old Bailey' in London, Britain, on June 27, 2022. (Photo by Reuters)

British lawyers involved in criminal trials have staged a walkout to demand higher wages, as the country is bracing for more union strikes amid a soaring cost of living crisis which has seen inflation hit 9.1 percent -- a 40-year high.

The Criminal Bar Association (CBA) said on Monday that barristers voted for action earlier this month, with more than 80% of its 2,055 members backing walkouts.

The lawyers who act in criminal court cases say real earnings have collapsed, dropping 28% since 2006, with junior barristers earning a median income of only 12,200 pounds ($15,030) in their first three years, forcing many to give up their career.

They are calling for a 15-percent increase to the pay they receive when carrying out so-called legal aid work which is funded by the state.

The walkouts will be held on five days over the next four weeks, and senior criminal lawyers will refuse to accept new cases or cover for colleagues as part of the action.

The lawyers said the strikes were necessary to prevent the already creaking criminal justice system hit by cuts and the COVID-19 pandemic backlogs from grinding to a halt.

In London, several hundred barristers -- some dressed in their trademark horsehair wigs and black gowns -- staged a picket outside the Old Bailey, the Central Criminal Court.

Similar actions took place outside courts in five other cities, including Cardiff and Manchester.

British Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab described the walkouts as "regrettable," saying barristers had been offered a 15% pay rise.

The CBA, however, says the current proposal would not come in until the end of 2023 at the earliest.

"The system was in crisis and still is in crisis, and the reason for the action is really to prevent its collapse," said Kirsty Brimelow, Vice-Chair of the CBA, adding, "If we carry on as we are there simply won't be sufficient barristers left to prosecute and defend in these cases."

Sarah Jones -- a senior barrister or queen's counsel (QC) -- said unless action was taken now "in five years time there won't be a criminal justice system... there simply won't be anyone to prosecute and defend."

Mark Watson, assistant secretary of the CBA which represents barristers in England and Wales, said it was a misconception that lawyers at the start of their career were well paid.

He said a criminal barrister would be paid £124 ($152) for a hearing but that would often require many hours of preparation as well as travel which was often not reimbursed.

The latest development came two days after tens of thousands of British rail workers staged their third walkout this week, bringing the country's railway system to a virtual standstill in the biggest strike in 30 years.

Teachers are also hoping to secure a significant pay rise, with the National Education Union (NEU) threatening to consult members on possible strikes later in the year if their demands are not met.

British Airways staff at London’s Heathrow airport have also voted in favor of a strike for better pay, in a move that threatens to disrupt the UK’s busiest airport during an already chaotic summer for air travelers. 

The United Kingdom, with the inflation rate at a 40-year high of 9 percent in April, is struggling with a huge rise in the price of energy.

Economists say Britain is expected to have the highest inflation among the counties of the Group of Seven (G7) not just this year, but also in 2023 and 2024.

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