Courts have been disrupted across the country as the first day of strike action by criminal barristers forces a halt to many cases.
Members of the Criminal Bar Association have walked out over a dispute with the government concerning legal aid – fees for representing defendants who cannot afford to cover the costs themselves.
They are also refusing to accept new cases and take on “return work” by picking up court hearings for colleagues whose cases are overrunning.
Hundreds of barristers, some dressed in their court wigs and black gowns, joined picket lines outside London’s Old Bailey and courts in cities including Cardiff, Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester.
At Swansea Crown Court, the trial of an alleged neo-Nazi could not start after a defence barrister joined the action.
James Allchurch, who denies stirring up racial hatred with the Radio Aryan website, told the judge his counsel had informed him of her plans in advance.
Judge Huw Rees adjourned the trial until Wednesday, when the barrister is expected to return. He told the defendant that with more days of action planned for the coming weeks, the court would have to “take every day as it comes”.
“Because of the days of action today and tomorrow we can’t proceed without your counsel being here,” Judge Rees told Mr Allchurch. “Nothing is going to happen without you being represented, rest assured about that.
“It wouldn’t be right to swear a jury in the absence of your counsel so everything that could have happened today can’t happen and will hopefully happen on Wednesday.”
Similar scenes were being repeated in courts across England and Wales, where barristers reported that up to 80 per cent of courtrooms at some locations were shut. At Bristol Crown Court, five of seven scheduled trials were not running on Monday. At the Old bailey, only three courtrooms were open in the morning.
The strike action is intended to last for four weeks, escalating from two days of action on Monday and Tuesday, to three days the folowing week, four the week after and a Monday to Friday walk-out on the week beginning 18 July.
Kirsty Brimelow, vice chair of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA), which represents barristers in England and Wales, said the decline in incomes “poses the most serious threat to the British legal system in decades”.
Speaking outside Manchester Crown Court, she added: “We have made our case over and over again to government but our warnings continue to fall on deaf ears.
“They have no solution to saving the criminal justice system. This is a national crisis which is of government making and it must be dealt with as a national emergency.
“We cannot allow further attacks on our profession when we know the reality of the crumbling courts and junior barristers, who walked away long before this action.
“We take this action in the name of citizens of this country because it is their justice system that we are determined to protect. We will not sit idly by and watch its destruction.”
Speaking outside Bristol Crown Court, barrister Kannan Siva said more than one in four barristers have been “driven out of the jobs they loved because they simply can’t afford to stay”.
He said: “For junior criminal barristers to be paid below minimum wage, a median income of just £12,200 a year, is not only scandalous but it will choke off the supply of the next generation of advocates – that pool of advocates that will help society and become our future judges.
“And it means that victims and defendants will suffer years and years of waiting to get justice in court.”
Around 82 per cent of the Criminal Bar Association’s more than 2,000 members to vote in the ballot supported the strike. Those who voted for the walkout also supported not taking on new cases. In total, 43.5 per cent of all those balloted chose the combination of both actions.
Separately, court staff are to ballot for strike action over the introduction of a controversial computer system holding case information.
Members of the PCS union argue that the system has had a negative impact on efficiency, working hours and wellbeing. A date has not yet been set for the ballot.
Justice secretary Dominic Raab said the CBA strike “will only delay justice for victims”.
He said: “It’s regrettable that the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) is striking, given only 43.5 per cent of their members voted for this particular, most disruptive, option.
“I encourage them to agree the proposed 15 per cent pay rise which would see a typical barrister earn around £7,000 more a year.”
However, a CBA spokesperson said the 15 per cent increase would not take effect immediately since it would not apply to backlogged cases.
The body said the figure was not effectively a 15 per cent pay rise because of payments to solictiors, expenses, tax, inflation and losses in earnings caused by court closures during the early stages of the pandemic.
An increase to criminal legal aid funding of “at least 15 per cent above present levels” was the recommendation of an independent review published in December.
Its author, Sir Christopher Bellamy, said the review had been announced three years previously and that underlying problems had been flagged “for many years before that”.
“There is in my view no scope for further delay,” he added. The CBA said it waited 105 days for a government response to the recommendations and that several had not been adopted.
There was a backlog of 58,271 outstanding crown court cases as of the end of April, according to HM Courts and Tribunal Service.
A National Audit Office report found that the backlog was rising before the Covid pandemic because the government limited the number of sitting days on which courts could run. It has subsequently lifted the cap.
Jo Sidhu QC, chair of the CBA, said the action was not merely about pay but “redressing the shortfall in the supply of criminal barristers to help deal with the crisis in our courts”.
“We have already suffered an average decrease in our real earnings of 28 per cent since 2006 and juniors in their first three years of practice earn a median income of only £12,200, which is below minimum wage,” he said.
Mr Sidhu said almost 40 per cent of junior criminal barristers left the profession within a year.
“In reality, our judges have been forced to adjourn 567 trials last year at the last minute because there simply wasn’t a prosecuting or defence barrister available,” he added.
“These shortages in manpower are causing increasing misery to victims and those accused who are desperately waiting, sometimes for years, to get justice and to see their cases finally resolved in court.”
The Bar Standards Board said that barristers who have not yet been instructed to appear at a particular hearing are free to refuse work and can make themselves unavailable, but that if they are already booked they must “carefully consider any duties that are owed to the court or the client” or risk potential regulatory action.
The Independent understands that no disciplinary cases arose from the previous CBA strike in 2018.
Additional reporting by PA