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Hundreds of barristers are threatening strike action over new Government pay levels for murder and fraud cases.
The Bar Council has told all heads of chambers that it will not stand in the way of the strike if the Government goes ahead with plans to massively cut rates. Some barristers will receive a net pay as low as £15 an hour for high-cost cases.
The scheme is due to come into force for defence lawyers on 1 April and for prosecution lawyers in May.
However, it has already been introduced in some parts of the country, where several barristers are already understood to have refused briefs. The Western Circuit is expected to debate the issue on Thursday (11 March).
Stephen Irwin QC, the bar’s chairman, said in his letter to chambers’ heads: “It is for each criminal practitioner to decide whether s/he is prepared to accept a contract under the terms available.”
However, he added that competition law and trades union legislation prevents bar leaders or circuits from advising barristers on “how to respond to this scheme of payment”.
Strikes would mean prosecution bodies such as the Serious Fraud Office and Customs and Excise, as well as thousands of defendants, would be left without representation in court.
The far-reaching consequences could include massive delays in bringing trials and prisoners spending months, if not years, longer on remand in custody awaiting the start of their cases.
Under the scheme, defence juniors in the most complex cases will be paid around £50 an hour net and silks around £100 net. In less complex cases, defence juniors will earn £60 an hour. However, the most junior, after paying tax, will be on around £15.