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Barristers to vote on ending strike action in Wales and England after pay offer

29 Sep 2022 5 minute read
Criminal defence barristers outside the Houses of Parliament. Photo Stefan Rousseau PA Images

Barristers in Wales will be asked to vote on whether to end strike action in the wake of fresh UK Government proposals in a row over pay.

The Criminal Bar Association (CBA) has agreed to ballot members again after talks with new Justice Secretary Brandon Lewis in which he decided to propose further reforms to Government-set fees for legal aid advocacy work, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said.

The offer represents “further investment of £54 million in the criminal bar and solicitors”, according to the UK Government department.

Criminal barristers in Wales and England are taking part in a continuous walkout after a dispute over fees and conditions intensified.

Prior to that, they were striking on alternate weeks and refused to carry out certain types of work.

The CBA confirmed the offer will be put to members in a ballot, the timing of which is yet to be set. But in a post on Twitter following the announcement, the body said: “It is not a good start that the Lord Chancellor Brandon Lewis has insisted on going ahead with a premature press release.”

There are also fresh fears the proposed deal could prompt a walkout by solicitors after the Law Society of England and Wales branded it “short sighted”.

In the wake of the announcement, the body representing solicitors said the criminal justice system will “collapse” unless the Government funds all parts equally – and said it was considering advising members not to undertake criminal defence work.

As he was sworn in as Lord Chancellor at a ceremony on Thursday, Mr Lewis said he was pleased to have reached an agreement with CBA leadership, adding: “I am hopeful to now see an end to the disruptive strike action that risks undoing the progress made … and means delaying justice for hundreds of victims.”

The announcement came after High Court judges ruled that delays to criminal trials affected by the ongoing strike may not be a good enough reason to keep defendants in custody on remand if the dispute continues beyond the end of November.

Sources suggested the court ruling may have “focused the minds of Government to address fundamental issues”.

In a statement, Mr Lewis added: “I greatly value the criminal bar and solicitors and the work they do every day in our crown and magistrates’ courts. They are crucial to reducing the backlog.

“My priority in these discussions has been to ensure that victims aren’t forced to wait longer to see justice done.

“These are generous proposals, and I would strongly urge all members of the Criminal Bar Association to consider carefully, end their strike and work with me to deliver better outcomes for victims of crime.”

CBA chairman Kirsty Brimelow KC said: “The offer from Government has resulted from constructive talks between the MoJ and the leadership of the CBA.

“This offer represents substantial positive movement from Government. As a result the offer will be put to a ballot.”

‘No future’

There had been anger that a planned 15% fee rise barristers are due to receive from the end of September – meaning they will earn £7,000 more per year – would only apply to new cases and not those already sitting in a backlog waiting to be dealt with by the courts.

But now the MoJ has said the fee increase will apply to the “vast majority of cases currently in the crown court” as well as provide a pay rise for solicitors, with further measures due to be announced in the coming weeks.

This is despite the department previously saying it had “repeatedly explained” to the CBA that backdating pay would require a “fundamental change” in how fees are paid, adding: “That reform would cost a disproportionate amount of taxpayers’ money and would take longer to implement, meaning barristers would have to wait longer for payment.”

It is understood the move requires changes to the digital system used by the Legal Aid Agency to make payments and, while officials are confident there is a solution available, they fear it may be difficult and expensive.

The Government has pledged to make £3 million available for “case preparation like written work and special preparation” and allocate £4 million to defence barristers involved in pre-recorded cross-examinations, used to reduce the trauma of a trial for vulnerable victims and witnesses.

A £5 million-a-year rise for youth court fees from 2024/25 – which the department said is expected to benefit “both solicitors and some junior barristers” – is also proposed.

Measures designed to reduce delays for victims – such as increasing early resolution of cases, reducing the number of ineffective trials and progressing cases between magistrates’ courts and the crown court – will also be explored.

An advisory board on criminal legal aid reform, established to find improvements in the system, will hold its first meeting next month, the MoJ added.

Law Society president Stephanie Boyce said: “If solicitors do not get parity on the bare minimum 15% recommended by Lord Bellamy, the Ministry of Justice will have made it clear that there is no future in criminal defence practice and we will advise our members not to undertake this work.

“No responsible organisation could truthfully advise otherwise.

“We are meeting ministers urgently today.”

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