Criminal barristers are on strike. Admittedly, the optics might raise an eyebrow. Any picket line with sweeping black gowns and fancy horsehair wigs will face an uphill struggle in the court of public opinion. “You look like a bunch of 17th-century French kings,” a friend helpfully offers. In July a YouGov poll placed public opposition to striking barristers at almost two-thirds (65 per cent) – making us the least popular of 14 professions considered. I find myself hoping that traffic wardens or estate agents might join the “hot strike summer” just so we can feel a little less unpopular. Could this be our toughest jury yet?
A motorway jam of human misery
Any decent lawyer knows that to win a case you need the facts on your side. We have plenty of those. Many junior criminal barristers in their first few years of practice are working at less than the minimum wage. We have endured a 28 per cent decrease in real earnings since 2006. We have lost a quarter of specialist barristers in five years. We risk haemorrhaging a generation of diverse lawyers that had just started to transform this male-and-pale profession. Many of them are state-school educated, burdened with loans and have chosen the public service of legally aided work over more lucrative commercial options. Those who cling on have a mounting, urgent caseload. The work is harrowing and relentless. Cases of alleged murder, rape, robbery and child abuse join a queue that is fast approaching 60,000. This is a motorway jam of human misery. And it is gridlocked. One London courthouse is setting trial dates in 2024. We work harder and longer but, ultimately, we are treading water.
Complainants wait. Witnesses wait. Public safety waits. Defendants wait. Some of them will be guilty. Some will decide that waiting years on bail is altogether more comfortable than pleading guilty and going to prison now. Some of those waiting will be innocent. Hauntingly so. And, in the words of the National Lottery, it could be you. You might think the darkest days of a defence barrister are spent representing the personification of evil. You would be wrong. The cases that keep me up at night are of those people hauled through this cold system who did precisely nothing wrong. They sit in court, wide-eyed, never thinking a dock was somewhere for someone like them. Until, of course, it was. It might have been the car accident, the stag do, the angry neighbour or the misunderstanding at work. But whatever it was, it blind-sided them. They arrive at court clutching their paperwork with a supportive spouse or parent. They hope to “clear all this up”. It almost always takes years. It often takes everything they have.
An intervention from Dominic Raab
Behold. Later in the week I see Dominic Raab, the Justice Secretary, has found the time to talk to a newspaper. Which is funny because, since this saga started, he has not met with the leader of the Criminal Bar Association. Still, perhaps negotiation tactics were taught differently at his law school. He has told the media that striking barristers are “holding justice to ransom”. This seems a pretty peculiar way of thanking me for consistently getting up at 5am, representing the most marginalised in society, cross-examining the vulnerable with care, funding my own sick leave and my own pension contributions, and working late into the evening considering photographs of corpses or the accounts of abused children.
Peculiar, too, because our strike is robust, but it is not wantonly cruel. We have exceptions for cases that involve vulnerable people who are less able to withstand disruption. But these are the dying days of a wounded government and Raab has backed the wrong pony in the leadership race. He will be shown the exit soon. Negotiating with him now is like trying to reason with an ex-boyfriend who has packed his bags, downloaded Tinder and decided he is keeping the cat. You can shout if you like, but his Uber is already on its way.
Soggy strike September
Two days before our full strike, and four months after we started incremental action, it began to rain. Inside. On my wig, to be precise. As I dashed down the corridor at Croydon Crown Court, the carpet was squelching underfoot. I was there to conduct a sentence in a serious case. The fixed fee for a sentencing hearing is £126, regardless of preparation time or what is at stake. I stopped to stare at the rotten ceiling tile and the manky bin catching London’s filthy rainwater. “Just about sums the whole thing up,” growled a seasoned barrister, shuffling past. So much, then, for our “hot strike summer”. Perhaps it will be a “soggy strike September” that brings someone to the table.
This article appears in the 31 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Liz Truss Doctrine