Criminal barristers are to vote on whether to accept an improved deal on legal aid rates from the government at ending a strike that has disrupted thousands of trials in England and Wales.
Members of the Criminal Bar Association, which represents 2,400 advocates, started industrial action in late June escalating to indefinite strikes on September 5 over the rates paid for legal aid work.
Their action has caused severe delays in the justice system with some trials delayed until 2023 and 2024 at a time when the government is seeking to reduce the backlog of cases in the crown court, which has risen from 40,000 in March 2020 to 59.992 in July.
Barristers have said the current legal aid rates have in a 28 per cent fall in their income in real terms over the past 20 years and called for a 25 per cent uplift to fees, to stem a further exodus of young barristers, who can earn as little as £12,200 a year.
On Thursday, justice secretary Brandon Lewis announced a new pay offer involving a £54mn government investment in the system for criminal barristers and solicitors.
The old offer was for a 15 per cent increase that applied only to new cases taken on from late September. This angered barristers as it meant existing trials, which they were already booked to do, would be paid at the existing lower rates.
The new offer, worth tens of millions, crucially applies a 15 per cent rise for new cases, plus existing cases barristers have already signed up to do.
The offer will also inject £3mn of funding for case preparation and a further £5mn uplift for fees paid for youth court work.
Lewis said the proposals were “generous”. “My priority in these discussions has been to ensure that victims aren’t forced to wait longer to see justice done,” he said.
Kirsty Brimelow, chair of the Criminal Bar Association, said the “constructive” offer would be put to a member ballot, which is expected to close by mid-October. “The offer represents a substantial positive movement from the government,” she said.
However, the Law Society of England and Wales, which represents criminal solicitors, said it was now seeking a comparable offer to that made to barristers and an urgent meeting with ministers.
It has been warned that solicitors could stop doing legal aid work if the government maintains its offer of a 9 per cent increase on legal aid fees for solicitors, less than the 15 per cent offered to barristers.
“The criminal justice system is in crisis and the government is falling way short of addressing it. You cannot fix the problems in the system unless you fund all parts of it effectively,” said Law Society president I Stephanie Boyce.
During the barristers’ action, trial delays have become so severe that suspects facing serious charges, including murder, have been set free from prison by judges who are refusing to extend the time they are held in custody pending trial — which is usually limited to 182 days.
On Wednesday, the High Court ruled that two judges in Bristol and Manchester had acted unlawfully in taking into account the barristers’ strike when they released suspects on bail ahead of their trial.
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