Criminal barristers have voted almost unanimously in favour of industrial action over what they describe as ‘chronic underfunding’ of the criminal justice system.
According to the Criminal Bar Association (CBA), more than 94% of the 1,908 members balloted have refused to accept “returns” work from 11 April, unless the government “agrees to measures necessary to safeguard the long-term sustainability of the Criminal Bar”.
“Returns” work involves covering hearings when other barristers cannot appear, which barristers often do as a gesture of goodwill to minimise delays and allow cases to proceed.
The Public Accounts Committee has said that the backlog in criminal cases has nearly doubled since March 2019, to 59,928. The number of rape and serious sexual offence cases waiting over a year to be heard has increased by more than 400% since the onset of the pandemic.
“Through our labour and our goodwill, we have sustained a chronically underfunded criminal justice system on behalf of the public while suffering substantial reductions in our real incomes and exhausted by the hugely increased demands placed upon us, often for little or no reward,” the CBA said in a statement.
“We have already lost too many of our colleagues who can no longer afford to maintain their commitment to criminal work and who have left our ranks out of desperation and despair. Every day we are losing more. We have shrunk to a mere 2,400 full-time criminal barristers.”
The CBA said it would continue to engage with the Ministry of Justice to seek a resolution that “reflects the demands” of barristers.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We are disappointed in a vote for this course of action just days before we announce our plans to create a stable and sustainable legal aid sector for the future.
“We encourage CBA members to read our proposals in full and respond to the consultation, rather than being drawn into action that will harm victims of crime.”
Justice secretary Dominic Raab has asked barristers to “be patient” for reforms after an independent review last year called for an extra £135million a year to be spent on legal aid.