As of today, the overwhelming majority of Criminal Bar Association members (including myself) have voted to adopt a “no return” policy on our business. This is the closest thing to a strike for us, the largely independent professionals.
This means that when a lawyer assigned to a case becomes unavailable for any reason – for example when another case overflows – any lawyer following this policy will not be available to take on the case.
We know this will lead to further delays and breakdowns within the criminal justice system. We do this knowing full well that without the goodwill and sense of duty shown by lawyers when they make themselves available to take on cases – often at short notice and for relatively little remuneration – a great part of our criminal justice system stops working.
This is not an action we took lightly. But it’s a mistake to think that it was even remotely functioning as it should be, under the status quo.
Over the past five years, the criminal bar has lost a quarter of its full-time jurors and QCs, with many citing stress and inadequate pay as key factors. It’s estimated that around 23% of criminal lawyers work more than 60 hours a week in their first three years, but still earn a median of £12,200 a year after expenses, it’s no wonder that even the most civic of us find we can’t go on.
The Government’s Independent Criminal Legal Aid Review in 2021 recommended that the criminal justice system needs further investment. What was needed, the report said, was a “substantial increase in available compensation” for both legal aid firms and lawyers, as well as structural reform of the fee system to ensure that work was properly and promptly remunerated. . Without it, the “sustainable pool of defenders” on which the system relies could dry up, he said. The perception that there is “little future” in criminal legal aid must be corrected “if the [criminal justice system] is to function… let alone thrive,” he said.
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Much of the legal profession has been saying this for years, even before the pandemic. Yet, rather than acknowledging the precarious state of its justice system and supporting the professionals who make it work, successive governments – abetted by hostile sectors of politics and the press – have often found it more convenient to blame the lawyers for chess.
Apparently we are not civil servants doing vital work, but ‘fat cats’, ‘benefactors’ and sometimes – with barely a squeal of protest from the Lord Chancellor – ‘enemies of the people’.
The Justice Department’s own proposed response to this slow-motion disaster, when you strip out the spin and look at the actual impact of its proposed £135m injection, falls far short of the bare minimum identified by the review independent. Lawyers may not see a real increase in legal aid income until 2024.
This is not a government that takes the state of its criminal justice system seriously.
And so, until the government takes justice as seriously as we do, here we are. There can be no more excuses.