Manchester barristers taking part in indefinite strike action have demanded the government takes its concerns about the state of the criminal justice system seriously and starts to act.
Criminal lawyers are currently saying they will not return to court until action is taken on issues including low pay for junior barristers which is driving people out of the sector and the enormous backlog of trials.
Barristers demonstrated outside Crown Square in Manchester on Tuesday (6 September), the second day of the indefinite industrial action which was overwhelmingly voted for by members of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA).
The barrister co-ordinating the action for the northern circuit slammed the outgoing government for its refusal to engage with the lawyers and said the cabinet which will be appointed by new prime minister Liz Truss had to open dialogue.
Politicians have described the walk-out as “irresponsible”, which has been a cause of further anger among those taking part.
What was said during the demonstration at Crown Square?
Barristers at Crown Square on Tuesday morning heard from Nina Grahame QC, who is leading the strike action for the northern circuit, Nneka Akudolu QC and two junior barristers, Rebecca Penfold and Jennifer Devans-Tamakloe.
Those leading the action said the mood was determined and angry.
Ms Grahame said:”The mood at the meeting was very supportive and very angry with the Ministry of Justice for its refusal to engage with us. We are determined to continue until we are listened to.
“I think people have been surprised at barristers taking such strong action and they thought that support would dwindle away quickly, but that is far from the case. Support is growing, numbers are strengthening and we are not capitulating.
“The Ministry of Justice needs to understand that until it engages with us and starts dialogue we won’t be going back to court.”
Ms Grahame accused the ministry and politicians of treating barristers with “complete contempt”.
Additionally the barristers were not able to stand on the Crown Square steps for their demonstration as the area was fenced off, with Ms Grahame suggesting the bits of rubble falling off the building were indicative of the problems in the system as a whole.
What is the strike action about?
The barristers have a number of serious concerns about the future of criminal justice, all linked to pay and working conditions.
The CBA says the median salary for a junior barrister is just £12,200 a year, while Ms Grahame told ManchesterWorld that both new lawyers and senior, established barristers were leaving in droves to pursue other areas of law.
She said the whole criminal justice system is struggling as there are not enough judges either, and if people leave the profession they will not accrue the necessary experience to form the next generation of the judiciary.
At the same time the backlog of cases awaiting court time now stands at almost 60,000, while it was more than 40,000 when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Ms Grahame said barristers have been particularly angered by politicians blaming the current strike action and the novel coronavirus for cases not being heard, when they say the problems predate both of those by some time.
The barristers want an independent review which was carried out implemented in full. This recommended a minimum of a 15% pay rise with more increases to be considered in future.
The Government says it is making a generous offer of 15% but Ms Grahame said it would only be for new cases and would not be available until the backlog of existing cases was cleared, which she said meant lawyers would not see the higher fees in their bank accounts for at least two years.
Even then, she said, the median salary for junior barristers with a 15% fee rise would still be below the minimum wage.
Ms Grahame said: “We are trying to tell the government the criminal justice system is floundering and failing. We have been trying to tell them this since 2006 and in those 16 years we have seen a 28% cut in real income.
“People are not staying to become senior practitioners so how is the public going to be represented? Who is going to represent the interests of victims and families, or represent defendants entitled to a fair trial?
“Criminal practitioners are heading for extinction as a species and government is sticking its head in the sand and pretending there isn’t a problem.
“We hope the new people in post will start to discuss the issues with us and take them as seriously as they need to be taken.”
What has the government said?
The Ministry of Justice has expressed reluctance to go along with the CBA’s suggestion that higher fees should be paid for existing cases in the backlog, claiming this would require significant changes to how fees were paid and would disproportionately impact on taxpayers.
Speaking earlier in the dispute, justice minister Sarah Dines said: “This is an irresponsible decision that will only see more victims face further delays and distress.
“The escalation of strike action is wholly unjustified considering we are increasing criminal barristers’ fees by 15 percent, which will see the typical barrister earn around £7,000 more a year.”
On the state of Crown Square, the Ministry of Justice said a structural survey had been completed and work would begin on the building as soon as possible.