Lawyers Are Striking so Justice Isn’t Just for the Rich

The decimation of legal aid doesn't just leave lawyers earning below minimum wage, it rigs the justice system in the interests of the wealthy and powerful – that’s why criminal barristers are on strike.

Kirsty Brimelow, vice chair of the Criminal Bar Association, addresses the media as she and barristers protest outside Manchester Crown Court on 27 June 2022 in Manchester. (Christopher Furlong / Getty Images)

When you get arrested next time you take part in a noisy demonstration, who’s going to apply for your bail? Who’s going to fight to beat the charges, and—if one of the pernicious new anti-protest offences sticks—who’s going to represent you at your sentencing?

At a rally of criminal defence lawyers on Monday, strike leaders spoke about the huge numbers of people leaving the profession. Over the last five years, nearly a quarter of them have gone. 300 are estimated to have quit last year alone. This is hardly surprising, given that these publicly-funded lawyers’ real-terms pay cut over the past twenty years is reckoned to be a bruising thirty percent. Junior criminal barristers, who are self-employed workers and wholly reliant on a fee system set by the government, are making less than the National Living Wage despite working long and stressful hours.

The Criminal Bar Association’s industrial action was backed by eighty-one percent of its members, which is astonishing considering the broader context. There has been a general reluctance to call a full strike in the sector, and an earlier attempt at action was suspended in 2019 when the government agreed to a pay review. This caution doesn’t necessarily speak to an inherent conservatism in a profession, nor a sense of resignation about the ever-worsening pay and conditions, but is probably more connected to the difficulties that striking can cause. Legal aid lawyers tend to feel deeply committed to their clients, and the idea of losing a trial date and delaying someone’s case for months or years—particularly if the accused is vulnerable, or in pre-trial detention, or (as is so often the case) both—is a daunting prospect.

What Monday’s rally showed most clearly is that solidarity is not just a slogan. The lawyers’ strike began just days after that of the RMT. It followed in the wake of extraordinarily successful campaigning and consciousness-raising by the RMT’s members and leaders, and it’s highly doubtful that lawyers would have turned up on Monday with the same confidence and energy had the RMT not been so adept at winning the public mood. It’s doubtful, too, that the press would have treated the strike so even-handedly: even the Financial Times focused on the strikers’ demands, rather than parroting the government’s usual lines about fat-cat lawyers.

In the days leading up to the strike, various senior figures had been making threats against the Criminal Bar Association’s members. As barristers are self-employed, their action is not covered by the legal protections and immunities that apply to ordinary strikes, and the participants face extremely serious personal, professional, and financial consequences just for taking part. In the face of such tactics, the RMT’s contribution to morale is difficult to overstate.

That’s especially true given the government’s constant condemnation of ‘left-wing human rights lawyers’. This line has started to look less like a snide remark in recent weeks, and more like one of the main ideological planks of the Johnson government. The lawyers-as-wreckers narrative is one of the driving forces behind both the Rwanda deportations and the laughably titled Bill of Rights (a partial repeal of the Human Rights Act, which followed the halting of the first plane with remarkable orchestration). If it hadn’t been for the RMT making the case for all those going out on strike, as well as the generalised horror in response to the Rwanda policy, the anti-lawyer rhetoric might well have won the day on Monday.

But it didn’t, and the strike looks strong and confident due, in no small part, to the particular moment in which it happened. It’s off to a good start. The action is indefinite, and barristers will refuse work for one additional day each week until they reach the full five, after which they’ll work one week on and one week off. Support and solidarity from Tribune readers will be greatly appreciated in the coming weeks.

Just as the RMT came to the barristers’ picket, we and other workers will need to pay it forward by supporting strikers at British Airways, at the Post Office, and in the NHS. Other sectors mustn’t be allowed to face the real-term wage cuts that have driven so many of my colleagues out of their jobs. It’s great to see QCs standing up for workers’ rights (although one, of course, was notable by his absence), and it puts the lie to the idea that some workers are too privileged or too well-off to fight for our shared interests. As the state grows increasingly authoritarian, we will all come to find that we need criminal defence lawyers to survive, just as we need transport staff, postal workers, and doctors, too.