Editorial: Barristers are right to down their gowns

Editorial: Barristers are right to down their gowns

It was never supposed to come to this. The Bar Council’s historic decision to call for strike action over fee restoration is undoubtedly a dramatic development — and one that Irish Legal News believes is entirely justified. Successive governments have had long enough to rectify an abysmal situation.

There can be no doubt that this was never the Council’s preferred course of action. Its representatives have patiently engaged with ministers over a number of years, strung along by vague promises that legal aid rates would eventually be looked at. Even now, the decision to announce the strike three months in advance suggests a hope that the government will see sense and make any action unnecessary.

But with criminal barristers having endured a real-terms pay cut of more than 40 per cent over the past 20 years, inaction is no longer a credible option.

It would be remiss not to point out that this decision was not made by the Council alone. It has faced immense pressure to act from below, including from those practitioners, particularly in the District Court, who have taken their own initiative to mount courthouse protests and small-scale withdrawals of services in the past year.

Some criminal practitioners will undoubtedly have looked on with envy as their counterparts in England and Wales last year launched an all-out strike which ended with a 15 per cent increase to legal aid fees. Barristers in Northern Ireland took a similar action less than a decade ago. The lesson from other jurisdictions is that withdrawing services works.

The Irish Criminal Bar Association points out that the system by which barristers in the District Court are paid is a complicated anachronism, and more fundamental reforms than simple fee restoration are needed there. But the common theme is that, amid a cost-of-living crisis, barristers are no longer prepared to be uniquely overlooked by ministers.

The government’s typical blame-trading game — Helen McEntee supports fee restoration but Paschal Donohoe controls the purse-strings (whatever happened to collective responsibility?) — will not be enough to placate barristers.

With strike action on the horizon and countless people dropping out of the profession due to low pay, it is past time for the government to act decisively to ensure the criminal justice system remains fit for purpose. Fee restoration is a start.

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