Hundreds of criminal barristers in England and Wales have begun strike action over legal aid funding and working conditions.
Today’s walkout is the first of 14 days’ action planned over the next four weeks.
As well as staging court walkouts barristers are refusing to accept new cases and to carry out ‘return work’ – stepping in and picking up court hearings and other work for colleagues whose cases are overrunning.
The Criminal Bar Association (CBA), which represents barristers in England and Wales, said around 81.5% of the more than 2,000 members to vote in the ballot supported walking out of court.
Of those who backed walkouts, most subsequently voted for the option of refusing new cases as well.
In total, 43.5% of all those balloted opted for this particular combination.
The walkouts mean some crown courts across England and Wales are running limited services, with criminal trials and other cases postponed or rescheduled.
Justice Secretary Dominic Raab has described the strikes as ‘regrettable’ and said they will ‘only delay justice for victims’ at a time when pressures on the criminal justice system have resulted in significant waiting times for cases to be concluded.
But barristers on picket lines have warned the criminal justice system is ‘absolutely at breaking point’ and accused the government of not listening to their concerns.
Kirsty Brimelow, vice chairwoman of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA), which represents barristers in England and Wales, said from outside Manchester Crown Court: ‘The Criminal Bar Association has repeatedly warned the government that the huge decline in real incomes at the criminal bar poses the most serious threat to the British legal system in decades.
‘We have made our case over and over again to government but our warnings continue to fall on deaf ears.
‘They have no solution to saving the criminal justice system. This is a national crisis which is of government making and it must be dealt with as a national emergency.
‘We cannot allow further attacks on our profession when we know the reality of the crumbling courts and junior barristers, who walked away long before this action.
‘We take this action in the name of citizens of this country because it is their justice system that we are determined to protect.
‘We will not sit idly by and watch its destruction.
‘We are doing what we have been trained to do, which is to fight for justice.’
Speaking outside Bristol Crown Court, barrister Kannan Siva said more than one in four barristers have been ‘driven out of the jobs they loved because they simply can’t afford to stay’.
‘For junior criminal barristers to be paid below minimum wage, a median income of just £12,200 a year, is not only scandalous but it will choke off the supply of the next generation of advocates – that pool of advocates that will help society and become our future judges,’ he said.
‘And it means that victims and defendants will suffer years and years of waiting to get justice in court.’
Barrister Rebecca Filletti said the system is at ‘breaking point’.
Speaking from outside Manchester Crown Court, she said: ‘I work in excess of 18-hour days, I work weekends, I miss out on family things, and most of that work is working for which I don’t get paid and I feel I need to do to a good job for my clients.
‘Today is the first day in my entire career I have not gone to court.
‘I attend if I’m sick, I attend if I have got family commitments, and I would not have taken this decision lightly.
‘The reason I have taken this decision is things need to change.’
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