It’s a familiar image.
The rotund barrister in a wig and gown glugging a glass of champagne at his private members club to celebrate getting his client off.
Sadly it’s as out-dated as the one of a Bobby on the beat giving the young scamp in shorts a clip round the ear for being cheeky.
The reality for the modern criminal justice barrister is very different.
It is not uncommon for new barristers to earn less than £20,000 a year for a 70-hour week.
A barrister might get their instructions the evening before a hearing and have to prepare at night.
They might get paid £40 – based on rates set by the government – for that hearing from which they will have to deduct their own travel costs and buy their own lunch.
In those circumstances, that barrister would return home with less in the bank than they started with and it is because legal aid rates, the method through which they are paid for public defence, are absurdly and unsustainably low.
It’s because of this that criminal barristers are taking strike action, not because they are down to their last bottle of Dom Perignon.
Of course, there are some barristers who make a lot of money.
Those of us in civil practice earn well and some very senior commercial barristers earn enough to rival top city executives, but the criminal bar (and some parts of the public family bar) are not paid enough to encourage the bright and the ambitious to join their ranks.
Frankly, I don’t think they are paid enough or treated well enough to want to stay.
Around 20% of criminal defence barristers have left the industry since 2016 and numbers are dwindling, according to the Law Society.
There is little to no legal aid available at all for civil actions, thanks to changes brought in a few years ago that meant fewer were eligible, and this creates a vicious circle.
There are more ‘litigants in person’ – people who represent themselves and who often don’t know what they are supposed to do.
As a result, there are more adjourned hearings because civil procedure rules and directions made by judges have not been followed.
This costs the taxpayer money, ironically negating any savings from not providing legal aid and at the same time slowing up the system.
Litigants in person are then often left feeling that they were not listened to or were at a disadvantage.
The problems are deeper, and strike action is simply the visible symptom of an ailing justice system that is on the verge of collapse.
Assets that are needed for justice have been depleted due to underinvestment and neglect by successive governments presumably in the mistaken belief that the only people who will notice are criminals.
The government says that the money from property sales is going into technology investment but the technology was (and in some parts of the system still is) woefully out of date.
Up to date tech should be an additional investment not just a replacement for courtrooms, another pressing problem.
Over 250 courts have closed since 2010 including half of all Magistrates’ courts. For many, a hearing can be hours away by public transport.
There are also simply not enough judges sitting.
Every day my colleagues and I have hearings come out of the list at the last minute due to ‘lack of judicial time’.
Those hearings may not be re-listed for months and it can take over a year from the start of a civil or family claim to its conclusion, or several years in the criminal courts.
‘Justice delayed is justice denied,’ as the famous legal maxim goes.
Our wonderful court staff have been depleted by around 10,000 since 2018 alone. This means it is very difficult to get in touch with a court.
A phone call can take an hour to be answered Emails disappear into a blackhole. One court I attend regularly told me they receive a thousand emails a day and cannot cope.
Urgent change is needed – and that is why barristers are on strike.
We need legal aid rates that reflect both expertise and the importance of the work.
We need a legal aid system that is available to all (criminal and civil) at the point of use and repaid by those that can afford it through PAYE, much like the student loan system.
We need investment in courts and court staff.
These are the changes that really would warrant the popping of a champagne cork for barristers.
The Criminal Bar is a national asset that cannot be easily replaced.
Members are hanging up their wigs in droves and a wealth of experience and ability goes with them.
The fragile, imperfect thing we call civilization rests on a foundation, which is the rule of law and a belief in justice. We ignore this strike action at our peril.
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