The criminal bar has voted to escalate action over the government’s refusal to meet their legal aid demands – with the first court ‘walkouts’ scheduled to begin next week.
Since April, hundreds of barristers have adopted ‘no returns’ in response to the government’s refusal to uplift their fees by 25% as well as other changes.
After being balloted on whether and how to escalate the action, the Criminal Bar Association announced this morning that the majority of members have voted for the highest form of escalation: court walkouts and refusing to accept new instructions as well as no returns.
According to the association, just over 2,000 members voted, with a total of 81.5% voting for 'days of action'. Just over half (53.4%) of those who voted for 'days of action' voted to combine it with no returns and no new instructions. Only 5% voted to end the legal aid action and 13% opted for no returns and no new instructions only.
CBA chair Jo Sidhu QC and vice-chair Kirsty Brimelow QC said: ‘This second ballot has reaffirmed our reputation as an open and democratic association. Our members have always respected the outcome of a free and fair voting process, whatever the result. We will therefore be faithful to the ballot. Our unity is our strength.’
The first walkout will begin next Monday. Participating barristers are encouraged to attend the Old Baily or Crown courts in Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Bristol and Cardiff from 10am to show their support.
The ‘days of action’ will escalate each week, culminating in a five-day walkout on the week commencing 18 July. The action will then be suspended for a week before resuming on 1 August with a five-day walkout. Barristers will walk out every other week subject to a satisfactory response from the government.
On Friday afternoon, justice minister James Cartlidge confirmed the government expects to lay secondary legislation shortly that will pave the way for criminal legal aid fee increases to come into force by the end of September.
However, Sidhu said today: ‘Throughout the past year, we have continued to engage regularly with the Ministry of Justice, including a further meeting with the [justice minister] on 25 May. We have made repeated efforts to persuade government to at least honour the basic recommendations of the criminal legal aid review to increase AGFS fees by a minimum of 15% without delay rather than force us to wait until October…
‘Despite our reasonable requests, and notwithstanding the clear exhortation in the review (submitted to government on 30 November 2021), that there is “no scope for further delay” in implementing the minimum increase to our fees, government continues to insist that they will not shorten their timetable.’
On the outcome of the ballot, Cartlidge said: 'This is a disappointing decision by the Criminal Bar Association, considering less than 50% of CBA members voted in support of the option likely to cause the most disruption. The 15% pay increase we consulted on would mean a typical criminal barrister earning around £7,000 extra per year and only last week I confirmed we are moving as quickly as possible to introduce fee rises by the end of September.
'We encourage the Criminal Bar Association to work with us, rather than escalate to unnecessary strike action, as it will only serve to harm victims as they are forced to wait longer for justice.”