Barristers' strike action hitting cases at Ipswich Crown Court
- Credit: Charlotte Bond
The impact of strike action by criminal barristers in protest at pay and what they describe as “the crisis in the criminal justice system” is beginning to be felt at Ipswich Crown Court.
Last month, criminal barristers in England and Wales voted overwhelmingly to take industrial action in protest over levels of legal aid funding.
The ballot by the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) in March saw 94% of votes in favour of refusing to accept returns – where a barrister steps in to represent a defendant whose original barrister is unable to attend court.
On Wednesday, a trial at Ipswich Crown Court was unable to take place because barristers in the case were not available and other counsel were unable to step in because of the refusal to accept returns.
While on Thursday, a defendant who was due to be sentenced at the court had his case adjourned because his barrister was not available and the case could not be returned to one of his colleagues.
Another defendant chose to represent himself and was given a suspended prison sentence after the court heard that his barrister was unwell and the case couldn’t be returned to another barrister meaning a month-long delay.
Some defendants at Ipswich Crown Court are already having to wait up to a year for a trial date because of a build-up of cases largely due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the strike action is likely to add to the already substantial backlog in the crown courts - which stood at nearly 60,000 in figures published last month.
The CBA claims the criminal justice system is chronically underfunded and “creaking at the seams” after a decade of cuts and that this underfunding has led to an "alarming exodus" of criminal barristers, with the system teetering on the brink of collapse.
It claims the number of specialist criminal barristers has shrunk by a quarter in the last five years and the crisis is set to get worse, with a Bar Council survey in October 2021 finding that 25% of criminal barristers intended to leave.
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The no returns action, which only applies to legally aided cases, is aimed at urging the government to bring in a "substantial improvement to fees" for legal aid work.
James Cartlidge, justice minister and South Suffolk MP, said: “The crown court backlog is now falling thanks to our decisive action and the hard work of legal professionals and as a result of our reforms the typical criminal barrister will earn nearly £7,000 extra per year.
“This is a significant pay rise and I encourage the Criminal Bar Association to work with us, rather than pursue unnecessary disruption in the courts which will only serve to delay justice for victims.”