The current cost of living crisis has adversely affected the lives of thousands of workers across the UK. This includes criminal barristers, who have been particularly affected given the precarious nature of their employment. Contrary to popular belief in the media, many barristers, especially junior barristers, are not earning large salaries, but are often in fact struggling by on less than minimum wage, in a criminal justice system that is underfunded and overstretched.
This has been highlighted by the recent strike by criminal barristers in England and Wales. The dispute principally concerned the low rates of pay which barristers received for legal aid work. However, the strike has also drawn attention to wider issues in relation to the working conditions barristers face in the criminal justice system, such as working hours and attrition rates. The Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid, which was published in 2021 three years after it was promised by the UK government in 2018, made for sober reading. It urged the UK Government to immediately increase legal aid fees by a minimum of 15% and criticised the ‘years of neglect’ the criminal justice system had been subjected to. It also pointed out that barristers were working longer hours, with a significant proportion of their work being unpaid. A prominent legal commentator online called ‘The Secret Barrister’ summarised many of the most criticalissues faced by criminal barristers after years of cuts to the UK justice system. In an article in the Guardian, he describes a system that is failing, with junior barristers walking away from the profession at an alarming rate, courtrooms that are decrepit and rundown, often lacking running water or heating, and others sold and shut off as many barristers are forced to eat into hard-earned savings just to get by.
The result of the drastic cuts to the UK’s criminal justice system, among which include funding for the Crown Prosecution Service being cut by a third over the past decade, and a staggering number of 244 courts and tribunals being closed since 2010, is that there is now a massive backlog of cases in the UK’s criminal justice system. At the end of 2022, there was a total of 61,737 outstanding serious crime cases in England and Wales. This means that victims, their families, defendants, and witnesses are left in limbo, sometimes waiting years for cases and hearings that are regularly adjourned due to a significant lack of criminal barristers. For example, 280 trials in the last quarter of 2021 were adjourned due to shortages of barristers. There is little doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated many of these issues, with courts shutting down for months on end. However, this does not absolve the UK government’s decades of mismanagement and underfunding of its criminal justice system. In many respects, it is now beginning to reap what it has sown.
It is little wonder therefore, that criminal barristers felt that they had no other option but to strike. Strike action which began in April 2022 continued intermittingly through the summer, until the Criminal Bar Association voted to begin an indefinite strike in September. Finally in October, following talks with the Ministry for Justice, the Criminal Bar Association voted to accept a new pay deal that would see a 15% increase in legal aid fees, with extra funding provided for case preparation and conducting pre-recorded cross-examinations on vulnerable victims and witnesses. However, while these developments were welcomed, there is still much room for further improvements. More efforts will have to be made to stem the flow of junior barristers leaving the profession, and more courtrooms must be made available to reduce the backlog of cases, to name but a few measures which need to be taken. Otherwise, the most pressing issues in the criminal justice system today will continue to persist into the future.