As the Conservative Party chooses Britain’s next Prime Minister on Monday, lawyers from England and Wales will join the wave of industrial action gripping Britain as the sector is set to become the last to go on strike.
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The Criminal Bar Association (CBA), which represents criminal lawyers, voted overwhelmingly last week to introduce new strike action. Lawyers in the English legal system, identifiable by their long robes and horsehair wigs, typically work specifically in legal disputes and defend their clients in court. The other branch of the legal profession in England and Wales, barristers, are generally left to serve as legal practitioners, advising clients directly on legal actions.
Such unprecedented action by the ABC is expected to have serious repercussions for the English criminal justice system. Actions already taken by the CBA earlier this year mean that criminal lawyers have begun to refuse work “returns” from fellow lawyers. This, according to the Justice Department, has resulted in the disruption of more than 6,000 cases, including nearly 1,500 trials.
The return-to-work denial policy resulted in the end of a common practice among attorneys of accepting each other’s cases in newspaper accidents and postponed hearings. The CBA’s new actions will mean that criminal lawyers will stop working altogether from September 5, with some exceptions.
The current dispute between the CBA and the government centers on a pay line.
Speaking to Al Arabiya, Sailesh Mehta, a seasoned criminal lawyer, explained the reasons behind the ABC’s decision to go on strike. According to Sailesh, the criminal justice system in England and Wales has been “collapsed” for decades, with steep pay cuts for lawyers reaching a tipping point.
“Over the past 15 or 20 years, the amount of compensation for criminal lawyers has not increased at all. This has meant, in real terms, a loss of a third of our income over the past few years,” Mehta told Al Arabiya.
While the legal industry remains one of Britain’s most lucrative sectors, with some law firms offering newly qualified lawyers more than $115,100 (£100,000), legal aid cuts for solicitors criminals have resulted in huge reductions in revenue.
This is especially true for young criminal lawyers. They can expect to earn nearly half the salary of factory workers and other unqualified professionals. Meanwhile, the median income of young lawyers in the field has fallen to around $13,812 (£12,100) a year, below the annual salary of full-time minimum wage workers.
According to the CBA, this has already precipitated with 40% of all young criminal lawyers leaving the field after just one year, as well as a sharp drop in the number of young people joining the profession in the first place.
This has raised concerns about the future of the criminal justice system, as a shortage of criminal lawyers entering the profession could result in a future breakdown of the criminal justice system. It could also prevent low-income people – who would otherwise be unable to afford legal representation – from accessing fair and prompt justice.
The reason the government was able to cut the salaries of criminal lawyers is partly because lawyers are a fully independent profession. This means that although criminal lawyers are publicly funded, they are not protected by the same employment regulations as regular workers, allowing the government to cut legal aid funding below minimum wage. In response, the ABC is seeking to demand an immediate 25% pay raise from the government.
Following these first rounds of requests by the CBA, the government commissioned an independent review of criminal legal aid, chaired by Sir Christopher Bellamy QC. The review found that an impending 15% increase in funding would be the minimum increase in legal aid funding needed to support the criminal justice system.
The government has since responded to the review by increasing legal aid rates by 15% for new cases from September. However, due to a pre-existing backlog of over 60,000 cases caused by the disruption during the COVID-19 pandemic, this would likely mean it would take “another 3-4 years” for lawyers to feel the benefits of such an increase, according to Mehta.
Therefore, the CBA argued that the increase is insufficient to sustain the profession due to these delays.
Mehta also warned that “even at the end of the process we would be a diminished institution, even at the end if we found this increase acceptable, there would not be enough lawyers to continue the penal system”.
While the implications the strikes could have on the criminal justice system in the meantime will be serious, with some trials already scheduled for 2024, it is clear that the English criminal justice system is not more suited to its purpose.
“Victims of sex cases already have to wait 4-5 years to see the end of the case,” Mehta added. “As the saying goes, justice delayed is justice denied.”
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