Government U-turn over barristers' fees 'a significant step'

Striking criminal barristers

Criminal barristers are staging a series of strikes in a row over legal aid funding - Credit: PA

A Suffolk QC has said a government U-turn over a 15% fee rise for criminal barristers is a "significant step" but warned it is not likely to bring the strike to an end. 

On Monday, barristers will begin their fourth week of action in a dispute over conditions and government set fees for legal aid advocacy work, with strikes taking place for five days. 

The government initially said its offer of a 15% fee increase could only be applied to new cases, not those already sitting in the backlog waiting to be dealt with by courts.

However, the government later conceded it could increase legal aid fees on cases already in the system - although no decision has yet been made. 

Simon Spence QC talking to the media during Joe Storey's murder trial. Picture : ANTONY KELLY

Simon Spence QC has welcomed the government U-turn - Credit: copyright ARCHANT 2017

Simon Spence QC, who has worked on a number of high-profile cases, including the trial of Suffolk Strangler Steve Wright, welcomed the U-turn. 

He said: "The government said, in very clear terms, that there was no statutory power to apply the 15% increase that they have offered to existing cases. It will only apply to new cases once the legislation has been put in place. 

"The Criminal Bar Association (CBA) took legal advice from a specialist in that field and they said there is power within the existing legislation to increase payments straight away. 

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"The reason being that there's no contract being barristers and the legal aid agency. What effectively happens is we do the work so they are indebted to us and they then settle the debt. There's no contract of employment because we're self-employed. 

"The government has now done a U-turn and do now accept that the 15% increase can apply to existing cases when the claims are filed. 

"I don't think it will bring the action to an end, but it's a very significant U-turn by the government." 

Striking criminal barristers

Criminal cases have had to to be postponed or rescheduled with courts running limited services due to industrial action by barristers - Credit: PA

He added that the political turmoil in Westminster is likely to delay decisions further. 

"The problem, of course, is that the whole thing is now on hold while the government is fighting it out amongst themselves over who is going to be the next prime minister," Mr Spence said. 

"All the government departments have effectively put up the shutters and as I understand it the MoJ has put everything on hold and there's no ongoing dialogue until the new prime minister is in place." 

Meanwhile, court security staff have voted to go on strike in a dispute over pay.

Andi Daci, of no fixed address, will stand trial at Ipswich Crown Court later this year

Ipswich Crown Court has seen disruption to cases as barristers continue to strike - Credit: Charlotte Bond

Members of the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) employed by private contractors OCS voted by 96% in favour of industrial action on a turnout of 61%.

They have rejected a pay offer the union said was worth 27p an hour above the national minimum wage of £9.50.

PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: "Our members are facing a cost-of-living crisis but, instead of helping them, OCS continues to offer poverty pay.

"The courts are already struggling with a large backlog of cases, and not having security officers will bring them to a standstill."

The union is calling for a £500 one-off payment, full occupational sick pay from day one, an additional day's annual leave, and paid time off for medical appointments.

A Courts and Tribunals spokesman said: "Minimal disruption is expected from this proposed action and we continue to work closely with OCS to maintain the safety of all court users."