On the 5th of September 2022, criminal barristers in England and Wales began their first indefinite and uninterrupted strike in response to the failure of the UK’s government to increase legal aid rates by 25%.
The Final Straw: Criminal barristers and the UK government could not agree on the reasonable pay level for legal aid work. The UK government accepted the Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid’s suggestion to provide an additional payment of £135 million per year for criminal legal aid and to increase the pay by 15%. Yet, the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) was dissatisfied with the government’s announcement and demanded a 25% increase.
The CBA argues that inflation at around 10% “means that a 15% rise in fees will be more than extinguished by the time we receive it.” As discussed in the ‘Inflation and the 2022 United Kingdom Railway Strike’ dated 9th July 2022, the UK’s inflation figure reached its highest level in 40 years, and the cost of everyday essentials like groceries and bills is tremendously rising. As a result, it is detrimental to the criminal law sector, especially for self-employed criminal barristers who must deduct any fees they receive for expenses such as travel, insurance, and chambers membership.
2. The loss of talent and junior lawyers
In light of the fee scales in place, those who deal with criminal work, particularly the more junior lawyers, can be paid surprisingly little, even less than minimum wage. Per the CBA, junior criminal barristers earn an average of £12,200 per year after expenses in their first three years. A criminal barrister, for instance, can make only £88 for a full day’s work on a bail application. In addition to court time, the barrister must read the papers, prepare for court, and travel to court. Criminal silk Chris Daw QC commented: “I don’t think the government realises that the barrister strike is not really a strike at all. For most junior criminal barristers it is the end of the line. They just can’t survive on legal aid rates. So they will just leave and do something else. They are very clever.”
The Ministry of Justice still maintains the ‘15%’ verdict and does not give further amendments on this matter. While it is true that some lawyers are paid vast amounts, it is also true that most junior lawyers are paid under the minimum salary and suffer from the cost of living crisis. The UK government should face up to this problem and take significant action.