Leeds Barristers' picket. Photo: Iain Dalton
Leeds Barristers' picket. Photo: Iain Dalton

Paul Heron, Solicitor, Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers

Make no mistake, this is a significant strike.

The sight of barristers in wigs and gowns, placards aloft, protesting outside courts – once unthinkable – reflects the crisis in society in general, and the impact of twelve years of austerity in particular. 

The legal profession is notoriously hard to organise. Barristers, set out in a multitude of chambers, are self-employed, are generally slow to move with the times, and still conservative in many respects.

However, there is a realisation that using industrial action to defend incomes and stave off further Tory cuts is now necessary.

In early June, criminal law barristers balloted for action. 81.5% of those who voted favoured strike action. The mood of meetings was militant and clear – enough is enough!

The reasons for strike action are there for all to see: a decade of austerity decimating the criminal justice system, a massive backlog of cases and, crucially, junior lawyers quitting in large numbers because the fees regime has had no increase in two decades.

Many aspiring criminal law barristers have significant student debt. The hope is that they will be able to get pupillage (a 12-month training period). But that is usually not the solution to the problem, just the start of different problems, mainly centred on low pay. 

Russell Fraser, a barrister at Garden Court chambers, said to me: “When I began pupillage in 2012, I was guaranteed an income of £12,000 in my first year, which was typical at the time. The potential existed to earn in excess of that, but not significantly so.

Ten years later that guaranteed minimum remains £12,000. And qualification (from pupil to barrister) doesn’t suddenly see a rise in income. Most are lucky to reach £20,000 within the first three to five years of practice.”

Indeed, the Criminal Bar Association estimated that since 2006 real earnings have declined by 28%.

At the Old Bailey on Monday, hundreds of barristers turned out to protest. The RMT rail workers banner joined the picket in solidarity and received massive applause.