Trial lawyers strike as English justice system grinds to halt

Senior criminal lawyers go on strike in a dispute over pay outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London on July 4. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON - Most of Britain's criminal trial lawyers started an indefinite strike on Monday, escalating a protest with the government over funding and fees, and bringing the country's crumbling justice system to a standstill.

The Criminal Bar Association (CBA), the body that represents thousands of barristers in England and Wales, voted unanimously last month to ramp up industrial action following a series of stops and starts from the end of June.

The walkout comes on the day a new prime minister is scheduled to be announced and is set to continue until the government improves its 15 per cent legal aid fee increase offer, demanding at least 25 per cent.

The CBA accuses the government of failing to negotiate, and have urged it to introduce reforms.

Britain's esteemed criminal justice system has been thrown into chaos in recent years with chronic underfunding, a backlog of cases and juniors who earn well below the minimum wage.

Lawyers are leaving the profession in droves as it becomes increasingly unaffordable.

"The roots of our profession have been so severely damaged that without urgent and proper investment for our junior members, the entire independent Criminal Bar will wither and die," said CBA vice-chair Tana Adkin, a senior barrister who holds the title of Queen's Counsel.

Members of the profession will gather outside the Supreme Court in London and other crown courts across England and Wales on Tuesday in protest.

Ms Kirsty Brimelow, the newly appointed chair of the CBA, will give evidence at a Parliament committee on Tuesday afternoon.

"As barristers start their historic, last resort, indefinite action, it is not too late for the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor to change his legacy," Ms Brimelow said in a statement.

"This is an irresponsible decision that will only see more victims face further delays and distress," Ms Sarah Dines, a justice minister, said. "The escalation of strike action is wholly unjustified considering we are increasing criminal barristers' fees by 15 per cent, which will see the typical barrister earn around £7,000 (S$11,300) more a year."

Ms Brenda Hale, the former president of the Supreme Court, said the strikes "show the condition as to which the criminal justice has fallen", in an interview on BBC radio.

"It's a complicated question for any barrister as to whether you do or do not withdraw your service, but the strength of feeling is so huge," she said. BLOOMBERG

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