Criminal barristers in England and Wales will vote on whether to end their indefinite strike action after the government proposed a new package of reforms and legal aid fees. A further investment of £54m has been proposed after discussions between the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).
The offer represents “further investment of £54m in the criminal bar and solicitors”, the MoJ said.
Industrial action began in April after the government failed to meet Barrister’s demand to raise legal aid fees, with the CBA citing years of underfunding.
“These are generous proposals and I would strongly urge all members of the Criminal Bar Association to consider carefully, end their strike, and work with me to deliver better outcomes for victims of crime,” said the justice secretary, Brandon Lewis.
The package includes increases for solicitors to help reduce the record crown court backlog of more than 60,000 cases which has left thousands of victims in limbo. “My priority in these discussions has been to ensure that victims aren’t forced to wait longer to see justice done,” Lewis added.
Barristers are due to receive a 15% fee rise from the end of September, meaning they will earn £7,000 more a year. But the initial pay offer drew anger after it was revealed it applied only to new cases – not those already sitting in a backlog waiting to be dealt with by the courts.
The package offers £3m of funding for case preparation, such as written work and special preparation – a key demand from criminal barristers who undertake unpaid work preparing statements for court. A further £4m would be allocated to defense barristers involved in pre-recorded cross-examination, and another £5m to increase annual fees in the youth court.
On Thursday, the CBA, which represents thousands of barristers across England and Wales, said: “It’s not a good start that the lord chancellor, Brandon Lewis, has insisted on going ahead with a premature press release.”
The CBA spokesperson said that while talks with government have been constructive, final details of the interim package have yet to be fully resolved. Details are being discussed with members who will be balloted on whether the package is sufficient enough to suspend action.
A ballot may open as soon as this weekend, and may last the week, the spokesperson said. “The action therefore remains ongoing, unless and until there is a ballot by a majority of the CBA members who vote to suspend the action,” they added.
Earlier this month, barristers walked indefinitely, escalating demands with the government over a criminal justice system that is now facing increasing numbers of cases in which defendants are bailed out of counsel.
This week the high court ruled judges were wrong to refuse to extend the custody time limits of defendants who are kept in jail, awaiting trial cases delayed by the strikes. The source said the court’s decision has “clearly” focused the minds of government to come up with a package to try to resolve this dispute and mitigate the risk facing the entire justice system.