The action fuels fears of a 'summer of discontent' as more workers seek big pay rises to combat rising inflation
The action fuels fears of a 'summer of discontent' as more workers seek big pay rises to combat rising inflation

Senior criminal lawyers in England and Wales on Monday went on strike in a dispute over pay, just days after rail workers staged stoppages and other sectors threatened industrial action.

Barristers have threatened a series of walkouts over the coming weeks and to refuse to accept new cases or cover for colleagues as part of the action.

The action fuels fears of a "summer of discontent" as a growing number of key worker groups demand pay rises to combat rising inflation, which has hit 9.1 percent -- a 40-year high.

In London, several hundred barristers -- some dressed in their trademark horsehair wigs and black gowns -- staged a picket outside the Central Criminal Court, known as the Old Bailey. Other lawyers staged similar actions in five other cities including Cardiff and Manchester.

Some held up placards reading "?12,200 median income in first three years, 300 left last year", in a reference to the pay of the most junior barristers, many of whom are leaving the profession.

Justice Minister Dominic Raab -- a former lawyer -- hit back, saying the strike action was "regrettable" and would "only delay justice for victims".

But the lawyers say the strikes are vital to prevent the already creaking criminal justice system hit by cuts and Covid backlogs from grinding to a halt.

Senior criminal lawyers picketed outside the Central Criminal Court in central London, and across England and Wales
Senior criminal lawyers picketed outside the Central Criminal Court in central London, and across England and Wales

Sarah Jones -- a senior barrister or Queen's Counsel (QC) -- said unless action was taken now "in five years time there won't be a criminal justice system... there simply won't be anyone to prosecute and defend.

"It means that people who are victims will not have specially trained experts fighting their corner and those accused will not have representation and the system will fail," she told AFP.

Criminal lawyers are calling for an immediate minimum 15-percent increase to the pay they receive when carrying out state-funded legal aid work.

The legal aid system is designed to ensure access to lawyers for defendants on low incomes.

The government has pledged to implement a proposed 15 percent increase with conditions attached later this year.

But barristers say that is too late and will mean there is no increase in their incomes until late 2023.

They say that unlike lawyers involved in more lucrative commercial legal work they earn very little per hour because years of underfunding has left the system struggling to cope.

Jones said recruitment problems were "horrendous" and even those who did join often left after a few years because they "cannot afford to pay their bills, because they cannot see a future".

Members of the RMT rail union walked out last week in a dispute over pay, conditions and pensions
Members of the RMT rail union walked out last week in a dispute over pay, conditions and pensions

Mark Watson, assistant secretary of The Criminal Bar Association (CBA), which represents barristers in England and Wales, said it was a misconception that lawyers especially at the start of their careers were well paid.

A criminal barrister would be paid ?124 ($152) for a hearing but that would often require many hours of preparation as well as travel which was often not reimbursed, he said.

The CBA says its strike action will last four weeks, with stoppages increasing by a day each week until a five-day strike beginning on July 18.

Last week, tens of thousands of rail workers staged three one-day walkouts over pay and job security.

The NEU teaching union is threatening to consult members on possible strikes later in the year if their demands are not met.

National Health Service staff are also demanding higher pay.

In a vote in December, members of the Royal College of Nursing -- which includes nurses, midwives and healthcare assistants -- said they would be prepared to take strike action.

A failure to secure a 50-percent turnout, however, meant it could not take place.

Public sector union Unison, meanwhile, this month said some of its members in frontline NHS roles but employed by a private company in northwest England had "overwhelmingly" voted to strike in a dispute over pay and holidays.

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