‘The system is in crisis’: barristers make their case as strike begins

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Usually one of the busiest courts in the country, the corridors of Manchester crown court were unusually quiet.

Outside, dozens of criminal law barristers gathered at the entrance in their gowns and wigs to mark the beginning of a strike across England and Wales over pay and an “unsustainable” justice system.

“The system is in crisis,” said Kirsty Brimelow QC, a criminal law barrister and the vice-chair of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA), who should have been in court 7 to defend two young men on terrorism charges.

That trial was one of many in Manchester postponed because of a lack of legal representation for those in the dock. The judge in Brimelow’s case looked around the empty courtroom and told the defendants to go home and return on Wednesday, anticipating another no-show from both defence teams on Tuesday.

Junior barristers were earning just £12,200 after expenses in their first three years of practising, said Brimelow.

Recruiting young barristers to do crime work is becoming almost impossible because of the poor pay, said Andy Evans, who was supposed to be in court 11 defending a man who was being sentenced for the robbery of a cash delivery driver.

He watched a series of sports cars driving past in the drizzle and reflected on the money to be earned in other fields of law. “Look at those Porsches driving past here. They could well be driven by barristers going to the Civil Justice Centre, Manchester’s high court, doing other better-paying work: family, contract, civil, tax.

“We do this work because we are socially minded and it’s interesting, but you can’t survive on less than £13,000 a year.”

Evans’s case was adjourned in his absence, and his client was told to return next month. “I am one of those who has had to put the survival of the system – and the bleak future of the criminal bar – before my client’s needs,” said Evans. “This is not how I was trained, but we are at a tipping point. This is terminal decline.”

Barristers have increasingly been expected to be in two places at once as the courts struggle to clear the backlog after Covid. Erim Mushtaq was supposed to be defending in both Newcastle and Nottingham on Monday instead of protesting outside Manchester crown court.

“Because we are so committed to our clients and desperate for justice to be done we bend over backwards to make ourselves available. The system runs on our goodwill but that can only go so far,” said Mushtaq.

Harriet Johnson, a barrister and the author of Enough: The Violence Against Women and How to End It, should also have been defending in Newcastle on Monday. She described driving eight hours there last week to get to a brief hearing for which she was paid just £60.

“The petrol cost about £100, and out of my fee I have to pay my chambers, the VAT man, the tax man. It is always the barristers who pick up the slack because after you have met your client and looked them in the eyes you’re not going to then go: ‘Sorry mate, I’m going to sit this one out because I’m going to make a loss on this day.’”

An independent review into legal aid published in 2021 recommended an immediate increase to legal aid fees of 15%, yet the changes are not to be implemented by the government until the end of 2023, according to Brimelow.

She explained how 567 cases were postponed last year due to a lack of prosecution or defence barristers, with sexual offence trials making up 60 of these.

Strikes took place across the country in 2014 in order to put pressure on legal aid rates, but the scale of the picket line in Crown Square on Monday was “unprecedented”, she said.

“It really is a sign of the lack of options that have become available in order to save the criminal justice system. We like to be in a position where we can boast that we are the best criminal justice system in the world but currently we can’t do that.”

Daniel Calder, a criminal barrister on the picket line, said: “The current system is unsustainable. I don’t think you’ll find any criminal barrister in practice who has not at some point thought about leaving. I think about leaving, to be honest, pretty much every day. We stick around because if we don’t, there will be nobody left.”

According to the CBA, more than 1,000 cases will be affected each day of action, with many being adjourned to later dates.

The strikes are set to continue for four weeks, with walkouts increasing by one day each week until 22 July.