Barristers specialising in criminal law have voted to go on strike in a row over legal aid funding, with several days of court walkouts expected from next week.
The Criminal Bar Association (CBA), which represents barristers in England and Wales, announced the industrial action after a ballot of members.
The planned action comes at a time of significant backlogs across crown courts, said to involve 58,271 cases.
The lawyers are the latest profession to go on strike as rail workers plan action this week and amid reports of unrest among teaching staff and NHS employers.
The CBA said 81.5% of the more than 2,000 members to respond supported industrial action.
Jo Sidhu QC and Kirsty Brimelow QC from the CBA said: “This extraordinary commitment to the democratic process reflects a recognition among criminal barristers at all levels of call and across all circuits that what is at stake is the survival of a profession of specialist criminal advocates and of the criminal justice system which depends so critically upon their labour.
“Without immediate action to halt the exodus of criminal barristers from our ranks, the record backlog that has crippled our courts will continue to inflict misery upon victims and defendants alike, and the public will be betrayed.”
The strike action is intended to last for four weeks, beginning with walkouts on Monday 27 and Tuesday 28 June, increasing by one day each week until a five-day strike from Monday 18 July to Friday 22 July.
It means cases at which barristers are required will probably have to be postponed, including crown court trials.
Barristers are expected to strike on picket lines outside court, including at the Old Bailey in London and at crown courts in Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Leeds and Manchester.
In April, the CBA started to refuse to carry out “return work” – stepping in and picking up court hearings and other work for colleagues whose cases are overrunning – which is described as a gesture of goodwill to prop up the justice system.
The CBA said it also made “repeated efforts” to persuade the government to honour the recommendations of the criminal legal aid review to increase their fees by 15% immediately, but have been disappointed.
Lawyers have warned the criminal justice system is in crisis after a 43% fall in real terms in the legal aid budget since 2004-05.
While ministers have announced a proposed package of changes and pay increases after an independent review by the former judge Sir Christopher Bellamy, lawyers say there needs to be an immediate increase in their pay.
The CBA has claimed many of its members are being forced to leave the criminal bar after a fall in incomes of nearly 30% over the past two decades.
It says specialist criminal barristers make an average annual income after expenses of £12,200 in the first three years of practice.
Officials say Covid-19 absences have worsened the figures, but the lord chief justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, said in evidence to the House of Lords constitution committee last month that the judicial system was struggling with falling numbers of criminal advocates.
The justice minister, James Cartlidge, said: “This is a disappointing decision by the Criminal Bar Association, considering less than 50% of CBA members voted in support of the option likely to cause the most disruption.
“The 15% pay increase we consulted on would mean a typical criminal barrister earning around £7,000 extra per year and only last week I confirmed we are moving as quickly as possible to introduce fee rises by the end of September.
“We encourage the Criminal Bar Association to work with us, rather than escalate to unnecessary strike action, as it will only serve to harm victims as they are forced to wait longer for justice.”
The Ministry of Justice said only 43.5% of voters opted for 3(C), the option likely to cause the most disruption, and that investment in criminal legal aid was increasing by £135m a year – the biggest increase in a decade.
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