Northern Ireland barristers to strike over legal aid delays
Criminal barristers in Northern Ireland will walk out next month in a legal aid dispute — just weeks after barristers south of the border secured a significant increase in fees in a similar action.
The Criminal Bar Association (CBA) balloted members on a withdrawal of services in response to “unprecedented and worsening” delays in barristers receiving payment for work under the criminal legal aid system.
A previous strike by Northern Ireland lawyers in 2015–16 over legal aid pay rates was brought to a mediated end which included a commitment by the Department of Justice (DoJ) to prompt payments.
Former justice minister Naomi Long told Irish Legal News last year that a strike could have “catastrophic effects” on the recovery of the Northern Ireland courts from the pandemic, but added: “I totally understand that, when they are facing a situation where they may not be paid for work done for many months, they have to consider all their options.”
An initial day of action will be staged by criminal barristers across all criminal courts in Northern Ireland in November 2023.
A spokesperson for The Bar of Northern Ireland said: “The Bar of Northern Ireland has over many months called for urgent action from the Department of Justice to avoid such action taking place.
“The Bar has highlighted that the public policy of speeding up justice and increasing throughput requires an increased budget. However, to date no tangible solutions have been offered by the DoJ.
“The Department’s policy of delaying payment for work done means that dedicated and skilled lawyers are having to wait for up to six months for payment after completing their work. These delays are exacerbating the difficulties caused by reductions in legal aid rates which, when adjusting for inflation, have plummeted by between 47 and 58 per cent since 2005.”
The spokesperson added: “Criminal barristers are committed professionals who work on the most serious and difficult of cases. The criminal justice system depends on these lawyers to apply their time and skill in the best interests of their clients and broader society.
“The barristers who provide these legal services in Northern Ireland are often facing intolerable cashflow pressures that their counterparts in other UK regions do not have to endure.
“It is a matter of regret that, as part of a range of measures to be taken in response to this crisis in our legal aid system, criminal barristers have felt compelled to consider a withdrawal of their services.”
The Irish government last week announced a 10 per cent increase in legal aid fees a week after criminal barristers withdrew services on the first full day of the new legal year. The Bar Council subsequently said it was an “important first step” to full fee restoration.
Criminal barristers in England and Wales ended an all-out strike last October after the UK government committed to a 15 per cent increase in legal aid fees. The CBA there had originally sought a 25 per cent increase.