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Barristers vote for legal aid deal

By Monidipa Fouzder >>

(10 August 2022)

Criminal barristers will suspend their strike over legal aid funding after voting to accept the government’s revised £54m offer.

The Criminal Bar Association announced this morning that 57% of 2,605 barristers said ‘yes’ to the government’s new deal that will see a 15% fee uplift apply to the ‘vast majority’ of cases in the Crown court backlog, which is currently hovering around the 60,000 mark. Under the government’s original reform package, the uplift only applied to new cases from 1 October.

Barristers were asked: ‘Do you accept the offer from the MOJ as set out in the accompanying proposal document and therefore vote to suspend the action?’ 1,488 (57.12%) said ‘yes’ and 1,117 (42.88%) said ‘no’.

CBA chiefs said: ‘The Criminal Bar Association has a long history of respecting and unifying around the majority vote. As a democratic organisation, we take our mandate from you.

‘Whatever the final result, there will always be disappointment and even bitterness. The underlying causes that compelled us to commence action, as a unified group, have not gone away. The criminal justice system remains chronically underfunded.’

The CBA warned that barristers will be balloted on resuming strike action if the government fails to stop the criminal justice system ‘tipping over the cliff edge’, describing the offer as an ‘overdue start’.

‘We move now to setting up CLAAB [criminal legal aid advisory board] and addressing the hourly rates increases for the wasted and special preparation, together with returning to the additional money required if the section 28 cases and hearings are to be viable. Of course, reclassification of offences is important early work, as committed to in CLAAB. We move now to working alongside the CPS to apply equal increases to prosecution fees.

‘Phase 2 of CLAR [criminal legal aid review] is to commence at the end of November 2022 and we will engage with the other legal aid providers. We also look forward to working on the issues that land unfairly on the junior bar which are not connected to the AGFS action, namely the necessity for equal and fair distribution of work in chambers and increase in payments of fees in the magistrates’ court.’

Lord chancellor and justice secretary Brandon Lewis said: ‘Since starting this job five weeks ago, my priority has been to end this strike action and reduce delays for victims, and I’m glad that barristers have agreed to return to work. 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 and ensure victims see justice done sooner.’

Bar Council chair Mark Fenhalls KC said he was pleased the criminal bar voted to accepted the offer. 

‘The offer was the culmination of many months of work and pressure, and unprecedented personal sacrifice by barristers. The disruption of the work of the criminal courts has caused huge stress to all those who work in the justice system, and to the public which depends upon this vital public service,’ he added.

‘We remain committed to continued constructive engagement with the Ministry of Justice and the Judiciary to rebuild confidence in the criminal justice system. We turn now to the work of the “Criminal Legal Aid Advisory Board”, and the evidence-based work which will be critical to ensuring further future investment, so that barristers and solicitors can continue practising criminal work in the years ahead.’

The Chartered Institute of Legal Executives urged the government ‘to move faster to ensure the flexible deployment of lawyers of all types, CILEX Lawyers and solicitors, in criminal legal work especially in implementing the recommendations of the Bellamy review that would allow CILEX Lawyers to act as duty solicitors, improving the operation of the justice system for all’.

The government may have done enough to end the bar’s strike action for now, but its revised offer has left solicitors unhappy and mulling their own action.

Of the £54m being offered, £19m is earmarked for solicitors. The Ministry of Justice says further uplifts for solicitors will be announced later this year. However, the Society says the further investment is mainly a one-off and not increasing rates in the long term, so solicitors are still well below the 15% increase barristers are receiving.

Unless the government publicly commits to increasing the overall package for solicitors to a minimum 15%, Chancery Lane will advise members not to do criminal legal aid work. Solicitors will be discussing their options at a Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association conference this week.

(Courtesy: The Law Society Gazette)