The strike in London by barristers working at the criminal bar is quite different from the culture among the legal fraternity in TT.
For one thing, while it includes prominent barristers who have earned silk, because of a lack of new members joining the criminal bar, it is tying up the criminal courts quite seriously.
It is focused on the fees being paid, not to them but to the members of the more junior ranks – those just called to the bar who work for Legal Aid. Those (like those in TT) who work for Legal Aid have their fees paid for and set by the State.
In England, as in TT, Legal Aid is set up to provide legal assistance for those who cannot afford the fees charged by lawyers in chambers that are usually exorbitant and far beyond what a poor mother of a child who has been abused by a male relative can afford.
Not all these cases, especially if they involve custody, can be handled through the police, or the Family Court for free. As a result, people without monetary resources go to Legal Aid, which is free. As in TT, however, the fees fixed by government to pay the lawyers assigned to those cases were fixed many years ago – in TT, many decades ago – and cannot support a puppy, much less adults and their families.
It is not that simple, however. To qualify for legal aid in TT, you have to be earning below a certain level, a very low level, and be able to prove it, which is why not as many people use it as previously.
No strike action has been taken as a result in TT, and, at least so far none rumoured.
The major issue in the UK, and why some 50 QCs who practise at the criminal bar have joined the protest, is because the juniors who are available to work in the criminal courts, ie the main attorneys who service the UK Legal Aid system, are no longer interested in working there, which has caused a backlog.
Forty-six criminal courts have been sold off or have been closed by government. The resulting backlog is enormous. A quarter of barristers specialising in criminal justice have left the system, either going into another field of work or working in another country. Another 25 per cent belonging to the UK Criminal Bar Association are considering leaving.
For those courts that are still open, the UK government has restricted them from opening on 20 per cent more of the available calendar days. Fully a quarter of Crown Prosecution Service employees, the personnel who collect and correct evidence required for the courts, have left.
The resultant delays and backlogs mean that many people charged with crimes cannot get their cases heard, and as we said in last week’s column, this leaves victims and their defendants waiting for years for their cases to be heard. Which in the UK is seen as a miscarriage of justice.
As it is in TT, where there are people charged with crimes still languishing in remand for ten, 15 or more years while waiting for their cases to be heard.
What do these people do? Many have been in jail longer than if found they had been found guilty. And if found not guilty after all those years, where do they go when released? To families who have gone on with their lives? To children now grown up who are looking for jobs themselves, to partners who have lost jobs? To elderly parents who are ill and scraping by with diminished pensions and failing health and cannot support them?