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Criminal courts face further disruption as barristers strike for fourth week

Barristers have walked out for a fourth week as industrial action at courts around the country continues (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Barristers have walked out for a fourth week as industrial action at courts around the country continues (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Barristers have walked out for a fourth week as industrial action continues at courts around the country.

Criminal cases faced further disruption as a five-day strike by defence barristers went ahead on Monday.

Lawyers gathered at rallies outside Birmingham, Manchester and Winchester Crown Courts to support the escalating Criminal Bar Association (CBA) action in a dispute over conditions and Government set fees for legal aid advocacy work.

Barristers also lobbied MPs in Parliament.

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) accused striking barristers of forcing victims to wait for justice, but lawyers argue the criminal justice system has been in crisis for years.

Criminal barristers are due to receive a 15% fee rise from the end of September, meaning they will earn £7,000 more per year.

But there has been anger that the proposed pay rise will not be made effective immediately and will only apply to new cases, not those already sitting in the backlog waiting to be dealt with by courts.

So far four cases have been delayed this week at the Old Bailey in London as a result of strike action, including three murder trials.

The eight-week trial of five youths over the murder of 15-year-old Tamim Ian Habimana outside Woolwich railway station has provisionally been put back to next week, as has the case of three people charged with killing aspiring 22-year-old lawyer Sven Badzak in Kilburn in February 2021 and the attempted murder of a 16-year-old boy.

The trial of James Peppiatt, accused of attacking his late mother’s partner, 55-year-old flower seller Tony Eastlake, in Islington in May last year, is now listed for a hearing on September 15.

CBA chairman Jo Sidhu QC said: “We bring our action for justice to the heart of Parliament as those MPs who represent us all need to hear from those of us who prosecute and defend on behalf of the voiceless – in particular the victims of crime left to suffer and languish by Government’s ongoing failure to stem the massive exodus of criminal barristers.”

An MoJ spokeswoman said: “The current strike is now forcing victims to wait for justice, despite a generous £7,000 pay rise for the typical criminal barrister. We encourage barristers to put victims first and prevent any further delays.”

The Government department claimed it had “repeatedly explained” to the CBA that backdating pay would require a “fundamental change” in how fees are paid, adding: “That reform would cost a disproportionate amount of taxpayers’ money and would take longer to implement meaning barristers would have to wait longer for payment.”

Speaking outside Manchester Crown Court, Andrew Thomas QC, the head of Lincoln House Chambers, said: “We have won the argument already. We have made it clear to Government that they only have to listen to themselves.”

He quoted Justice Minister Lord Bellamy, who published an independent review last November, which concluded that a minimum of £135 million is necessary as a first step to nurse criminal legal aid back to health and is needed as soon as practicable to enable the whole criminal justice system to function effectively.

Mr Thomas said: “These days of action have already brought the Government back to the negotiating table. We know these are times of disruption in the Government. We know that eyes are elsewhere … but our justice ministers have a choice.

“They can be remembered as the ministers who continued with dither and delay, and allowed irreparable damage to our criminal justice system, or they can be remembered as the ministers who got the job done, listened to the independent advice of Christopher Bellamy and who acted before it’s too late.

“Our message to Dominic Raab is simple: Get the job done. Reverse the cuts to defence legal aid and give us back a functioning criminal justice system.”

Strikes will be suspended for a week from July 25 before recommencing between August 1 and August 5.

The CBA then plans to strike on alternate weeks, with no end date, with the action to remain under review and subject to the Government’s response.