Criminal lawyers in England and Wales have walked out. Legal experts are planning a series of strike days in the coming weeks to draw attention to inadequate conditions in the legal system and to fight for better pay.
It’s not just about salaries, said Jo Sidhu, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA). Rather, “we want to reduce the shortage of criminal barristers to help deal with the crisis in our courts,” he told Sky. These “barristers” represent the accused in criminal cases in court, but cannot set their own remuneration for this, but are remunerated according to a scale specified by the state.
But since 2006, these rates have fallen by 28 percent in real terms. In their first three years on the job, young lawyers earn an average of just £12,200 (€14,195) a year, Sidhu lamented. Almost two-fifths of young criminal defense lawyers therefore said goodbye to this specialization last year. In addition, more than 25 percent of all specialists in the industry have turned their backs in the past five years.
In the current week, work only rests on Monday. In the coming weeks, a following weekday will be added until there is a whole week of strikes at the end. Scotland is not affected by the strike, the legal system works according to different rules there.
Justice Minister Dominic Raab described the move as “regrettable”. The British government is currently under pressure from many quarters to improve working conditions and – in view of the current inflation rate of 9.1 percent – to adjust wages significantly.
A wave of strikes rolls towards the country in the summer. Last week, employees on the railways and the rail network stopped work for three days. In large parts of the country, just 20 percent of the trains were running. The conflict continues to smolder, the next strikes are in preparation.
In a recent ballot, British Airways ground staff at Heathrow Airport voted in favor of a strike. Further ballots are threatened with teachers and employees in the national health service NHS. Many public sector workers complain that they have suffered real losses because of the government’s austerity policies for years.
The staff shortages in the administration of justice have led to a considerable backlog in recent years. The royal administration of justice put them at 58,721 cases at the end of April. Over 550 cases had to be shelved last year because there were no attorneys available to prosecute and defend them. These problems “are created by the government, not the attorneys,” said Kirsty Brimelow, QC and vice chair of the CBA.
The backlog is often associated with changing regulations during the pandemic. In fact, the problems go back much further. A labor dispute loomed over the issue in 2018, but was averted after the government announced a detailed inquiry into legal aid.
The Criminal Legal Aid Report (CLAR) was only published at the end of last year after being postponed several times. In it, expert Christopher Bellamy, a former judge, recommended that at least £135m a year was needed for the legal system to stop the ‘brain drain’ of young lawyers from statutory defence.
The government has now proposed a rate hike of 15 percent. But the CBA is asking for 25 percent, noting that even that move would not offset previous cuts.
In addition, the calculation of the CLAR comes from the time before the inflation rate rose significantly. In addition, the government’s offer would only be used for new cases, so the considerable backlog would still have to be processed at the old rates.
A problem for the industry is that the legal professions are seen as high earners in society. In fact, the income disparities are extreme. Those who practice private law can set their own rates. Lawyers in renowned law firms start their careers with six-figure annual salaries and can quickly work their way up from there.
Unlike in criminal cases. Here the legal aid sets limits for the payment. Since they work independently, they pay the travel expenses themselves – and sometimes stay well below the minimum wage.
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