The British summer of 2022 may well go down as the summer of strikes. Workers across a wide range of sectors, including railway workers, bus workers, post office workers, airport workers, and barristers have all been on strike so far this summer, largely over disputes involving pay and conditions as inflation continues to increase and worsen the country’s cost of living crisis.
The legal sector has not been immune to this, with legal workers suffering from the same side effects of inflation as other workers across the country and feeling the pinch in their pay packets as a result. As a result, barristers have been on strike for most of the summer, with magistrates’ court staff now set to follow suit. However, the perception among the general public tends to be that barristers in particular are high-earning workers who do not deserve a pay rise.
A recent survey by the polling company YouGov found that out of 14 professions, barristers were lowest when it came to public support. While 60% of the public would back a strike by nurses, just 19% would back a strike by barristers. 65% of those polled would oppose such a strike, with further polling showing that they also come lowest in terms of public sympathy for a strike by barristers. A massive 45% said they wouldn’t have any sympathy at all for striking barristers.
This is indicative of the attitude towards barristers by the general public. To them, barristers often feel aloof and elitist and are also perceived as being high earning. As a result, strikes among legal sector workers are likely to continue to be unpopular with the public. In reality, those who are just starting out as criminal barristers often earn far less than they would do in other practise areas. According to the Criminal Bar Association, crime juniors can average earnings of £12,200 in their first three years – less than minimum wage.
Keep reading to learn more about the strikes taking place in the legal sector and the reasons for them.
Magistrates’ court staff strikes
The latest set of strikes to take effect concerns magistrates’ court staff, who voted overwhelmingly (93%) in favour of industrial action over the rollout of HM Courts and Tribunals Service’s (HMCTS) Common Platform. The strikes are primarily a result of the digitisation of the courts which has taken place over the past couple of years since the introduction of the Common Platform in September 2020. The government spent £236m implementing the system. While the HMCTS describe the system as “key to modernising the court system”, it has been beset by problems since its introduction.
In a statement last month, the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) said that the Common Platform is “fundamentally unfit for purpose and PCS members are no longer willing to have to grapple with a system that is negatively and significantly impacting on their health, safety and well-being.” They have called for a number of ‘clear, reasonable and achievable demands’ including stopping the input of new cases to the Common Platform, requiring all current Common Platform cases to be resulted outside of the courtroom, and ensuring there are no further job losses arising as a result of the Common Platform.
While there does seem to be agreement that the Common Platform is necessary in the long-term, as it is in theory meant to allow all parties, including court staff, solicitors, barristers, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and members of the judiciary to access case information.
Criminal Bar Association Strikes
The magistrates court staff strikes follows strikes by barristers last month, which saw the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) take action partly over an increase to the government’s set fees for legal aid work.
The increase, set to take place in September this year, originally amounted to 9%, a figure described by the Law Society of England and Wales president I. Stephanie Boyce as what should be “the floor of funding increases and not the ceiling”. The 9% proposed failed to meet the bare minimum figure of 15% which was recommend in the independent review conducted by Sir Christopher Bellamy last year. The 15% figure was later met by the Ministry of Justice, however the CBA is now calling for a 25% uplift, to reflect the 28% cut in legal aid fees they say has occurred in the past decade.
There is also a huge backlog of 58,000 cases according to the CBA, meaning that without sufficient legal aid funding there aren’t enough prosecutors and defenders for the system to function smoothly.
A ballot for further strike action is expected to take place later this month, which would be an escalation of the current alternating weeks of action that has been in effect since late June. If CBA members do vote to strike, this would lead to uninterrupted strike action, a clear escalation of the current practise.
The action taken by the CBA in the strikes includes:
- Court walkouts
- Refusing to accept new instructions
- No returns
Clearly, this is not an ideal situation for anyone. The issues with the Common Platform appear to be widely felt by those Magistrates’ Court workers who felt that it is necessary for them to go on strike over it. Meanwhile, criminal barristers earning less than minimum wage may find it hard to justify continuing working in an underfunded practise area like this when they can earn more elsewhere.
It remains to be seen whether the transitional government will take any action over the issues highlighted by the Public and Commercial Services Union and the Criminal Bar Association, certainly before the next Prime Minister is put in place by the Conservative Party in September.
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