Freedom News

Backing the briefs

So the first all out strike of the fuel/ inflation crisis is The Barristers! Specifically Criminal Barristers who do legal aid work. They are technically self employed but rely on payments from the government to represent defendants with low income (or whose assets are currently held in trust by other members of the gang residing in foreign climes lacking an extradition treaty with Her Majesties Government). These payments have been eroded for years until the average annual income for the most junior Briefs has slipped below the minimum wage. After two months of on/off action the Criminal Bar Association voted by 80% for an all out indefinite strike from 5th September. The Crown Courts, already with huge backlogs will be thrown into chaos and there will be major disruption in the Magistrates as well.

Why should we care?

Skipping the obvious, “All Strikers Are Beautiful” and a rehash of debunking the nonsense arguments we get about “excessive wages” every time the RMT comes out here’s why we should backing the wigged workers.

Top barristers do get very high wages, less so than in criminal work than other areas of law but still very substantial. The big issue to us as activists and in legal support is it will cut off access to the profession for people without the financial resources to ‘slum it’ for 10 years until they can earn a decent wage. You won’t need a First from Camford to guess which groups are less likely to have the Mummys&Daddys to make this possible. Also some decent defence lawyers grow up to be utter tosspots, mentioning no Kier Starmers. But so do a lot of activists to be honest.

Next it is also true that many of the people that they represent have done terrible things. But they still deserve a fair trial and adequate representation when the full force of the State is stacked against them.

I would give the Devil Himself the benefit of law for my own safety’s sake” is ascribed to Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons. And Sir Tom was no softie with six dudes burned at the stake while he was Lord Chancellor but perhaps more relevantly was that he got the chop, literally, after trying to defend himself in court.

Does having a good barrister matter?

There is no certain statistical method of showing whether having better lawyers improves your chances of getting off. But it does. Everyone knows. Which is why rich people pay heaps for top lawyers. Now that’s just one reason why the whole legal system is a pile of poo and will be replaced with Restorative Community Accountability in the ‘ecologically sustainably global society of freedom and co-operation’ to come. Meantime the best we can hope for is some approach to equality of arms. Triply so in protest cases where it’s often not about whether you’ve done it but if it can be legally justified. Twenty people have been jailed so from 86 arrests for the Bristol Kill the Bill demonstration in 2021. In the last major use of riot charges from Bradford 2001 200 out of 287 people arrested went to prison. There a whole load of differences between them but a good Defence Campaign that secured top class representation is a key factor.

Can the Strikers hold out?

Given that young barristers are dropping out of criminal defence in droves already you might suppose that they can’t last long and my feelers in the trade suggest much of the strength of the strike comes from pure indignation that the Ministry of Justice has refused to even negotiate. When things get hard we will see their mettle.

However the key to all strikes is Solidarity. Brutally that comes down to money. Two groups of people have a vested interest in a victory for the strikers. Criminals, and Legal Professionals. However a ‘Burgle for the Barristers’ campaign will have difficulties unless the Cops and Screws come out as well. While the current average prison wage of £9.60 a week limits the help from a mail-bag sewing bee. But wait there are about 16,500 barristers working in the UK and only 3.300 in criminal defence. There are also some 3,000 Judges, most former barristers, and all earning more than the minimum wage. Plus if some former Barristers such as Tony Blair or Sir Kier put a wedge in the collection bucket the Strikers can hold out forever.

Can the Government Break the strike

Given 17% of Tory MP’s at the last election came from a legal background it may seem surprising that they’re taking the most aggressive line to the profession since Shakespeare’s Dick the Butcher (“Let’s kill all the lawyers” Henry VI). The Tories, whoever wins the Leadership, Miss Truss won’t want to give in. Moneywise it’s a pittance to the national coffers (Criminal legal aid was £617m in 2020/21 compared to £1516m in 2008/9) but giving a 25% rise will be a beacon for others wanting more.

In the governments favour is the fact that the Great British Public doesn’t give a Monkey’s about the Criminal Justice system. All politicians are scared out of their defecation by appearing to be soft on crime so only a mass murder by someone on bail awaiting trial is likely to result in a rethink.

The Big Step would be to bring in scabs. That would mean a ‘Crown Defence Service’ mirroring the Crown Prosecution service or similar structure to Public Defenders in the USA. To make this work it would have to force defendants to accept representation from them by refusing legal aid to the private solicitors that instruct the barristers. That would widen the conflict and bring into question the whole structure of the criminal justice system.

What can we do to help? While there may seem little we can do to influence this struggle we strongly advise you not to accept alternative representation or ‘do it yourself’ to ‘get it over with’. You’ll have a fool for a lawyer and a fool for a client.

Andy Meinke

Photo: Guy Smallman

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