The current dispute is not exactly a strike. Many criminal defence barristers are refusing to do certain legal aid work.
Barristers doing criminal defence work are lawyers who usually defend people on criminal law charges at the Crown Court.
Where an accused passes certain interest of justice and financial tests it is possible for him to be defended on legal aid – money spent by the government on legal services so that people can be represented by lawyers.
Barristers operate out of Chambers – the word they use for offices. Usually they get asked to do the defence work referred to above by solicitors. Sometimes a particular barrister who started the work will become unavailable at a later stage to do the work.
When that happens it is possible for the solicitor to agree with Chambers that a different barrister will complete the work instead. This arrangement is known as a “return”.
Because it is felt that the amount of money being paid to barristers to do certain kinds of criminal legal aid is too low – rates of pay have not increased for very many years –there has been a dispute recently. The dispute is about certain particular aspects of the way barristers are paid.
The position is that:-
- Many barristers are refusing to accept work on legal aid if the legal aid order is dated on or after 1st April 2018
- When a barrister “returns” a case- other barristers are also now considering whether to decline that work as well: this would be known as a “no returns” policy if this position were adopted.
Amongst solicitors there is general support for the action being taken by barristers. Solicitors also have seen rates of pay for legal aid criminal defence law either remain static or decline over periods of many years.
Some financial proposals have recently been made on behalf of government to barristers to try to resolve the dispute and these proposals are under consideration by Heads of Chambers across England and Wales.
It is to be hoped that the dispute is resolved soon. Where criminal defendants are not represented it is very difficult indeed for courts to conduct their business and for cases to be heard and resolved. It is widely recognised that the current position is not satisfactory.
The taking of this action is highly unusual and it is felt by many that it indicates the great depth of concern there is amongst those who work within the criminal justice system about whether or not the resources allocated to it are sufficient for the courts to their job properly.