Criminal barristers in England and Wales have voted overwhelmingly to strike indefinitely from 5 September, the same date the new Conservative leader and prime minister will be announced.
Barristers working on criminal cases say they have seen deep cuts to their income after government changes to the legal aid system.
Many have quit publicly funded legal aid work, leading to “legal aid deserts”. Barristers who remain say they can no longer survive on the fees and that the criminal justice system is almost at a standstill.
The Criminal Bar Association (CBA) said a government offer of a 15% uplift in fees, which was the minimum increase recommended by the criminal legal aid review, was insufficient and would not apply to the backlog of 58,000 cases in crown courts.
Introduced by Clement Attlee’s government in 1949, it is a budget used to pay for legal advice for anyone arrested and charged who does not have the means to pay for it themselves. It is also used to help some claimants fight civil cases.
Many criminal barristers have blamed changes introduced under the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government with the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.
Dominic Raab, the justice secretary, who is on leave until Thursday with his family in Surrey, has not met the CBA since members embarked on industrial action in April, but junior ministers have met the group regularly.
On Monday the justice minister Sarah Dines said the strike would be “irresponsible”.
If hearings or trials cannot take place because there are no barristers to represent defendants, there will not be any trials in which criminals are sent to prison or those who are innocent are acquitted.
Victims, like defendants, will be left in limbo, unsure when they will see justice.
Lawyers who work in areas such as private corporate law can expect to make £100,000 a year from very early on in their careers.
But criminal barristers are not paid as well as many people assume. The median salary for a criminal barrister in the year 2019-20 was £79,800, according to an independent review conducted by Sir Christopher Bellamy QC.
New criminal barristers can take home as little as £9,000 once costs, including transport, are factored in, while some barristers say the time they spend preparing cases means their hourly earnings are below the minimum wage.
Barristers with zero, one or two years of practice were paid a median of £25,100 before expenses and a net figure of £18,800 after expenses.
Bellamy, a former judge, concluded last December that the criminal justice system needed an extra £135m a year immediately to halt the exodus of younger legal aid barristers, who receive as little as £12,200 per annum.
On 30 June, the government announced an initial increase to criminal legal aid fees, coming into force in September 2022.
The first day of the strike, 5 September, is also the day the new prime minister is expected to take office after the resignation of Boris Johnson.
The action follows rail and tube strikes in July and August by members of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association, Aslef and Unite.
The Communication Workers Union has announced industrial action by post office workers on 26, 27 and 30 August. BT and Openreach workers will stage further strikes in a dispute over pay.