Criminal defence barristers have narrowly voted to accept an improved offer on legal aid fees from the UK government worth millions of pounds, which will end a month-long all-out strike that has disrupted thousands of trials.
Members of the Criminal Bar Association, which represents 2,600 barristers, have taken days of strike action since late June over rates paid for legal aid work. They began an all-out walkout on September 5.
Their action has caused delays in the courts as the government battles to reduce a backlog of cases in the crown court that rose from 40,000 in March 2020 to 59,992 in July this year.
The government revised the offer late last month, and on Monday the CBA said 57 per cent of barristers had voted in a ballot to accept the offer and suspend action from 6pm on Monday.
Barristers, who are self-employed and who can earn as little as £12,200 in their first three years of work, had pushed for a 25 per cent rise in legal aid fees for representing defendants.
They warned that, without an increase, there would be a further exodus of younger barristers from criminal legal aid work.
The government had initially promised to increase fees by 15 per cent but only for new cases taken on from late September, rather than for upcoming trials that barristers had already been booked to do.
But Brandon Lewis, justice secretary, last month unveiled a revised deal amounting to a £54mn government investment in the criminal bar and solicitors.
Crucially, he agreed to apply the 15 per cent uplift in fees to most cases going through the crown court system, rather than just for new cases. The deal also provides a further £3mn for barristers’ case preparation and a £5mn uplift for youth court work.
However, the narrow margin of the ballot will raise questions as to whether younger advocates, many of whom voted against the deal, will continue to leave the profession.
Kirsty Brimelow KC, CBA chair, said on Monday the criminal justice system “sits on the cliff edge” and that the “goodwill of criminal barristers is exhausted”.
She added that the government’s offer had been accepted only on the basis that it was implemented, “otherwise the Criminal Bar Association will ballot again to lift the suspension of the action”.
Barristers are also unhappy that the government has not agreed to demands for a properly constituted pay review body, which can recommend fee increases.
Lewis said: “This breakthrough is a result of coming together and restarting what I hope to be a constructive relationship as we work to drive down the backlog.”
He must now deal with demands from criminal solicitors, some of whom are considering exiting criminal work amid unhappiness over the government’s proposal of a 9 per cent rise in legal aid fees.