Manchester barristers strike: ‘I earned more working in a coffee shop than in court’
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Barristers are about to embark on an unprecedented all-out strike against the state of the criminal justice system and their pay and working conditions - and Manchester-based lawyers have explained why.
Nina Grahame QC, who is based at Garden Court North in Manchester and is co-ordinating the action in the north of England, blasted the Government for its under-funding of the criminal justice system which she says has created a massive backlog of tens of thousands of cases awaiting time in court so justice can be done.
She also said pay and working conditions had got so bad that young barristers just starting out in criminal work are earning well under the minimum wage and are leaving that area of the profession in droves, causing her to fear for its future.
Junior barristers have been sharing their dire financial predicaments too, with one Manchester lawyer saying she earned more and had better job security as a barista in a coffee shop.
Ministers have also been accused of ignoring a major report outlining how bad the problem is and doing nothing to engage with barristers’ concerns.
What industrial action is taking place?
Barristers have been taking part in industrial action for several months now in protest at their pay, working conditions and the under-funding of criminal justice.
This began with barristers walking out of court for one day a week before building up to the current situation where they are working one week and then taking part in industrial action the next.
Now, though, members of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) have overwhelmingly voted to escalate the dispute even further.
That means that from Monday 5 September they will be taking part in all-out strike action and have vowed not to return to work until their demands are properly heard and acted on in Westminster.
Only a very small number of trials, where barristers feel they must be in court due to the involvement of vulnerable victims or witnesses or where justice simply cannot be delayed, will go ahead after 5 September.
What is the Manchester-based barrister co-ordinating the dispute in northern England saying?
Nina Grahame, who has been involved in criminal law for almost 30 years and defends the most serious Crown Court cases, was scathing about the Government and said that all-out strike action reflected barristers’ feeling that they have no other choice.
She said: “The Government is refusing to take our concerns seriously. We are being treated with complete contempt.
“Everyone will be affected by this action and we regret that enormously. We are heartbroken. This is not what we came into the job to do.
“I’m trying to protect the system I’ve devoted my professional life to because I am watching it fall to pieces.
“This is a last resort, we would never have thought we would have had to contemplate doing this.
“There aren’t enough barristers to prosecute or defend cases, the judiciary is struggling and not enough judges are being recruited, criminal barristers are leaving and the numbers are huge. It is a crisis of massive importance.
“This is unprecedented. Barristers are not a striking profession. Wigs and gowns on the picket line is not something you are used to seeing.”
Ms Grahame said the Government was presented with an independent review which warned that more money urgently needed to be put into the criminal justice system but none of its recommendations have been implemented.
Instead ministers have taken an approach to dealing with the walk-outs which has left barristers incensed.
Ms Grahame said: “We have been accused of being irresponsible and the Government has put out misleading information. Dominic Raab is blaming us for causing the backlog of cases, which is the fault of the Government, not the barristers. It is also nothing to do with our action. Shame on him and his irresponsible behaviour.”
What are the issues facing criminal barristers?
Ms Grahame says the rates of barristers leaving criminal work are at around 25% across the higher ranks and 40% among those just starting out in their careers.
She said the median income for a junior barrister in their first three years is as low as £12,200 per year, which she says works out at less than half the minimum wage.
With huge debts racked up from university and law school, plus costs such as court outfits and certificates enabling them to practice, she says that means many junior barristers simply cannot afford to remain defending criminal cases.
She said: “It is disgraceful and members of the public have been shocked by this when they understand it. Junior barristers are mostly working 60 to 70 hours a week with background preparation and travelling.
“They have got no hope of being able to ever survive.”
Ms Grahame says the current backlog of cases in the England and Wales court system stands at almost 60,000. However, she says that cutbacks to the system meant the number was already in the tens of thousands in March 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic hit.
She also said the Government’s offer to increase the fees barristers (who are all self-employed) receive was nowhere near as generous as it first appeared.
She said that as barristers are only paid at the conclusions of trials and the backlog in the system means there are massive delays in getting cases into court, many junior barristers will not see any improvement in their bank accounts until 2024.
While ministers and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) have said fees are being increased by 15%, Ms Grahame said this was merely the minimum hike recommended by a review.
‘I earned more as a barista’
Rosalind Burgin, 28, said that she earned just £10,000 in her first year defending criminal cases in court and said she had been financially better off in previous roles working in coffee shops.
The Manchester lawyer admitted first-year earnings tend to be lower, but said “you still need to be able to live”, with her current salary falling beneath the minimum wage.
Ms Burgin said: “I love working in criminal defence, and it’s heart-breaking that we have to do this, but there are no options left now. It’s not just about the pay, the work is really unsecure as well.
“I’ve been in tough situations before, but I’ve never had as little job security as I do now.
“I thought I’d be comparable to some of my friends working in healthcare - who I completely support in their right to strike as well - but they’re still getting minimum wage, at least. I’m not.
“At least working at a coffee shop you knew what you were getting and it was secure. I knew I would get paid for 10 hours work, whereas now I don’t know how much I’ll get for 10 hours.”
Ms Bergin said she was still waiting for money from trials which finished in September last year and described the amount of work that goes into chasing fees as “draining”.
What has the Government said?
Responding when the CBA announced the all-out strike, 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%, which will see the typical barrister earn around £7,000 more a year.”