West London Crown Courts expected to grind to a halt as criminal barristers strike

Image above: Kingston Crown Court

Members of the Criminal Bar Association announce an indefinite strike

The three Crown Courts which deal with criminal proceedings in west London – Isleworth, Kingston and Harrow – look set to grind to a halt as criminal barristers go on all out strike.

“We don’t want to do this” barrister Philip Kazantzis told The Chiswick Calendar, “but the Government just refuses to engage with us.”

People are leaving the profession in droves, he says, leaving only middle aged barristers and very young ones. Typically newly qualified barristers only stay five years before they transfer to another profession and applicants for pupillage have all but dried up.

He told me what he earns, what he is expected to do for free and how one of his trials has been put off three times because the courts just could not accommodate the huge backlog of work they face. Now scheduled for 2024, if it goes ahead then it will be ten years from the date of the arrest.

What he had to say was quite an eye-opener if you have no day to day contact with the courts.

Philip Kazantzis; photograph kazantzis.co.uk

“The Government just refuses to engage with us”

Philip Kazantzis has his own company as a freelance criminal barrister, representing defendants in Crown courts. He, along with many of his colleagues, has been on strike since April.

“The government has taken no notice” he told me, “they just refuse to engage with us, so now we are going on strike indefinitely from 5 September” (effectively from 29 August because of the existing strike action and the bank holiday weekend).

They started out in April with a policy of ‘no returns’ – removing their good will by refusing to cover the cases of other barristers who found they couldn’t cover their next case because their current one was overrunning (barrister A ‘returns the brief’ and barrister B picks it up and covers for them).

Courts have had to reschedule cases further into the future as a result. They already face a huge backlog because of Covid, which exacerbated problems in the system dating back way before the pandemic.

When that failed to engage the Government’s attention, they stepped up their strike action in June, stopping work on Monday and Tuesday of the first week, Monday – Wednesday of the following week, Monday – Thursday for the week after and Monday – Friday the week after that, then working a normal week.

This week it happens that Philip has no work scheduled. Next week, when he does, he will be on strike again over pay and conditions.

Working a ‘return’, ie. covering for another barrister, is paid at the rate of £126 + VAT for the day. He could be an hour in court or he could be there the whole day, but either way he will have had  to spend the day before reading up on the case, preparing a plea in trial, or a plea in mitigation if it’s a sentencing hearing. Both travel and expenses are included in the set fee for the day.

Juniors, who do more of this work than seniors because it is so poorly paid, earn about £12,000 a year.

Images above: Isleworth Crown Court and Harrow Crown Court

“A lack of respect”

“We are on strike for three reasons: one pay, two the unsocial hours we are expected to work, doing a lot of hard work at short notice, and three the lack of respect.”

When a trial runs over and a barrister finds themsleves double booked, inevitably finding someone to cover means that person will have to bone up on the case quickly at short notice, but that is compounded he says by the unreasonable demands of some of the judges.

He had one case in Birmingham where the judge sent an email at 7pm requiring the defence barristers to make their skeleton case submissions by midnight and the prosecution barristers to respond with their written arguments by 9am the following morning. Both sets of barristers were then supposed to arrive at court on time to make their arguments in person.

They are no longer paid for written work, Philip told me. Hearsay applications, character applications and defence statements are all written pieces of work which they are just expected to supply for free. Nor are they paid for looking through video or listening to audio evidence.

A barrister could take 15 hours looking through CCTV footage to check it; all arrests are now recorded on bodycams and then there are the recorded interviews to wade through. None of this is optional. If it has been served as evidence they have to watch it.

“They cut payments for video and audio some years ago because they could see how much its usage was increasing” Philip told me.

Last August he turned up ready to represent his client in a drugs trial and it was cancelled at the last minute because there were no prosecution barristers available.

“It had to be adjourned. There is an acknowledged shortage of barristers. There has been a mass exodus from the profession.”

The rates for legal aid barristers are set by the Ministry of Justice and called the Advoates Graduated Fee Scheme (AGFS). Solicitors are paid differently, so the strike action will not affect the work of police stations or magistratates courts. The AGFS is “not fit for purpose”, says Philip.

Image above: lawyers at work; photograph kazantzis.co.uk

More criminals on the streets and more innocent people in jail

If criminal barristers don’t turn up for work and the case is rescheduled the defendant is either remanded in custody for longer or freed. In the absence of a trial, using essentially guesswork,  this means there will be both more criminals walking the streets and more innocent people in jail for longer.

One client he was supposed to represent this month has had his case put off until April next year. As the case is a serious drugs and firearm case involving ‘Encrochat’, a sophisticated messaging system said to be used by criminals for arranging their deals, his client, who will be pleading not guilty, has been kept in jail.

I asked him about the effects of the strike action on the people involved in the cases.

“It is extremely tough on them” he said, “particularly on the victims. It’s not something we want to do but we’ve come to the point where it’s necessary.

“In 2010 they introduced a pay cut of thirteen and a half percent over a three year period. Since I started working as a barrister in 2005 I estimate there have been reductions in pay of 40 – 50% – actual reductions for legal aid work.”

The Government is now offering a 15% increase in fees, but Philip says he like most barristers has cases already in the diary until 2024. It will be the 2024 -25 year before it takes effect, so it needs to be applied to the backlog of cases, he says. There are some 60,000 cases in the backlog the courts are trying to work through.

Image above: Philip Kazantzis; photograph kazantzis.co.uk

Trials rescheduled as courts struggle to deal with huge backlog of cases

Isleworth Court, which handles most of the criminal cases in this area, has been struggling for a long time he says. Its courts are small, so with the Covid restrictions they have built up a huge backlog.

Philip has one case in which the offence and arrest were on 26 August 2019. His client was not charged until a year later. The postal requisition was sent out on 24 October 2020. The case went to a magistrates court in December 2020 and was supposed to be heard in Crown Court in January this year. It was postponed until 28 November because the court could not accommodate it.

His client was a teenager when the offence occurred – changed with violent disorder and actual bodily harm. If it goes ahead in November the trial will be three years and three months after the event, but it now looks set to be postponed again because of the strike action.

In another case, in which his client is accused of cigarette smuggling, the arrest took place on 25 February 2014. It was more than three years before he was charged by post on 18 April 2017. He made his first appearance in a magistrates court on 5 June that year and his first trial date at Crown Court was set for June 2018.

Rescheduled because the court could not accommodate it, it eventually went to trial in May 2019 but there was a hung jury so it was relisted for May 2020, only to be delayed by Covid. Relisted for 21 February 2021, againt the court could not accommodate it. It has now been listed for 7 May 2024, a whole ten years since the offence took place.

“My client is a man in his 50s of good character who has had this hanging over him.”

When cases are rescheduled like this it causes havoc. The victims, witnesses and defendants are left hanging but the barristers suddenly find they have huge holes in their schedule.

“I had a case in my diary this summer which was supposed to take seven weeks. It involved seven defence barristers and two prosecution barristers who were all left with a seven week gap when the court could not accommodate it.”

He makes a very persuasive case that the legal system is broken and there have to be changes but I put it to him that all of this goes on largely unseen by the general public unless they are actively involved in a case, so barristers taking strike action cannot have the same impact of train drivers or airport staff.

“I know, and I also know the general public are not behind us” he said. “They think we’re fat cats because they’re thinking of corporate lawyers. But the Government has to do something. It cannot just let the courts grind to a halt.”

Responding to the vote for indefinite strike action by members of the Criminal Bar Association, Justice minister Sarah Dines said:

“This is an irresponsible decision that will only see more victims face further delays and distress.

“The escalation of strike action is wholly unjustified considering we are increasing criminal barristers’ fees by 15%, which will see the typical barrister earn around £7,000 more a year.”

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