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Criminal lawyers in England and Wales to go on all-out strike over pay

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Criminal barristers outside the Old Bailey, London, UK, staging a walkout in June 2022. (Photo by PA)

Criminal lawyers in England and Wales are set to go on an indefinite, uninterrupted strike next month in a row with the United Kingdom government over jobs and pay, the country's Criminal Bar Association (CBA) has said. 

In a statement on Monday, the CBA announced that criminal barristers have voted for an all-out national starting on September 5, around the time when the new British Prime Minister is due to be announced.

The development comes as lawyers have been taking intermittent action for weeks, refusing to take on new cases or to accept responsibility for their colleagues’ cases, causing major disruption in the judiciary.

According to the CBA, almost 80 percent of the members who voted in favor of the strike had backed the idea of escalating the industrial action with an indefinite, uninterrupted strike.

The strike is expected to delay thousands of cases and result in a longer wait for justice for tens of thousands of people.

The protesting lawyers have asked for a 25 percent increase in pay for legal aid work, rejecting the government’s 15 percent pay offer, arguing that it would not kick in immediately or apply to existing cases.

Justice Minister Sarah Dines has hit back at the lawyers’ demands, saying that “the escalation of strike action is wholly unjustified considering we are increasing criminal barristers’ fees by 15 percent, which will see the typical barrister earn around 7,000 pounds more a year.”

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) previously said it had “repeatedly explained” to the CBA that backdating pay would require a “fundamental change” in how fees are paid.

“That reform would cost a disproportionate amount of taxpayers’ money and would take longer to implement, meaning barristers would have to wait longer for payment,” it added.

Meanwhile, vice-chair of the CBA Kirsty Brimelow said the strike action was the “last resort”, as the lawyers have experienced several reductions in their payments over the years.

“Barristers have had to endure collapses in their income and cuts and underfunding so that their income has decreased over 28 percent since around 2006,” Brimelow was quoted as saying by BBC Breakfast on Monday.

“The effect [of the strike] will be that the courts continue to sit empty with trials and cases not being heard. It is a last-resort action,” she added.

Brimelow called on the government to increase the payments as the main solution to prevent widespread disruption to the judicial process.

“The remedy is for an injection of money into the backlog of cases, which currently stands at 60,000 cases, that barristers are working on that will cost the government only 1.1 million pounds per month. Currently, it’s costing much more for the courts to sit empty,” she said.

Opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer also condemned the government’s inaction and said the government was doing “absolutely nothing” to resolve industrial disputes.

“I quite understand, whether it’s barristers or others, why people and how people are struggling to make ends meet,” he said.

Hitherto, more than 6,000 court hearings have been disrupted as a result of the dispute, according to the MoJ.

“The dispute we have with the Ministry of Justice is not just about pay. The criminal justice system is unraveling at the seams. Court buildings are crumbling and often unsafe,” Simon Spence, a criminal barrister at Red Lion Chambers, wrote in an article in The Guardian on Monday.

“Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, the lifeblood of the criminal justice system, is understaffed and facing increasing pressure," he wrote.

Spence also revealed that there is a “national shortage of judges” in the UK, and “22 percent of junior criminal barristers have left the profession since 2016 because they simply cannot earn a decent living.”

The UK has seen several strikes in different industries over the past weeks, as the inflation hits and worsens the cost-of-living crisis for Britons.

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