Criminal barristers in England and Wales will begin their first indefinite strike on Monday after the government failed to meet their demand to raise legal aid fees following years of cuts.
Before this year, criminal barristers had only walked out for a day and a half in 2014 before a resolution was reached in a dispute over legal aid.
But industrial action that began in April has gradually escalated as the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has refused to agree to an immediate increase to legal aid fees of 25%, offering only 15%.
The Criminal Bar Association says its members’ real earnings have fallen by 28% since 2006 and that the 15% rise will not be felt for years because it only applies to new cases from the end of September. There remains a backlog of about 60,000 cases to be completed.
Kirsty Brimelow QC, the chair of the CBA, said: “Government policies on toughness on crime and supporting victims are meaningless without the required proper investment in criminal barristers who deliver the justice.
“As criminal barristers start their historic, last resort, indefinite action, it is not too late for the secretary of state for justice and lord chancellor to change his legacy.
“Criminal barristers have stopped soldiering on through downtrodden criminal courts. They have stopped watching vulnerable people bounced into trials in 2024 with hands clasped in prayer that there will be anyone left to prosecute and defend.
“This is not a ‘world-class justice system’ as set out as the vision of the Ministry of Justice. It is not even a functioning justice system.”
The justice secretary, Dominic Raab, has accused striking barristers of letting victims down and driving the backlog of cases up.
But the CBA said that in the three months to 31 March, before criminal barristers began their industrial action, 6,734 trials were delayed, including 1,907 deemed ineffective trials – those that do not go ahead at the last minute – the highest figure in eight years of official records.
This included more than 200 cases where there was no prosecution or defence advocate available on the day a trial was due to start, according to the CBA’s analysis.
The 4,827 trials vacated – in advance – from court lists was the most in any quarter for seven years and 1,568 more trials were delayed than concluded over the period, the CBA said.
The CBA says it is striking to prevent the complete collapse of the criminal justice system and has expressed frustration that Raab has refused to meet to discuss its demands.
On Tuesday, striking barristers are planning to gather on the steps of crown courts in every region of England and Wales.
When the indefinite strike was announced last month, the justice minister Sarah Dines said it was “an irresponsible decision that will only see more victims face further delays and distress”.
The MoJ says the 15% fee increase will add about £7,000 to a typical barrister’s annual earnings.