Northern Ireland barristers to strike next month
Criminal barristers in Northern Ireland are to stage a one-day strike on Friday 17 November 2023 in an escalating dispute over delays in legal aid payments.
The local Criminal Bar Association (CBA) previously 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.
The Bar Council said the action is being taken in response to the Department of Justice’s “continued practice of applying wholly unreasonable delays in payments to barristers for work completed under the publicly funded criminal legal aid system”.
Aside from some agreed exceptions for emergency cases, barristers will not participate in any work related to criminal cases during the day of action across the jurisdiction.
A spokesperson for the Bar Council of Northern Ireland said: “This action is not being taken lightly. It is a regrettable but necessary measure to preserve the viability of legal aid as a vital public service that is relied upon by the most vulnerable citizens in our society.
“The Department of Justice’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. This is a wholly unsustainable, unfair, and unreasonable policy.
“The Bar Council has, for many months, been exhaustively exploring every other possible measure and has consistently called for urgent action from the Department of Justice to avoid any withdrawal of service taking place.
“In doing so, the Bar Council has highlighted that no other category of service provider in Northern Ireland has been asked to endure such an intolerable and unreasonable policy of payment delays.
“Indeed, no other jurisdiction across the UK and Ireland has chosen to address legal aid budget pressures by financially punishing the lawyers who provide a vital public service.
“The Bar Council has highlighted that the public policy of speeding up justice and increasing throughput, requires an increased budget. The Department has, to date, indicated that it intends to continue with this policy of payment delays.
“The very future of publicly funded legal services is at risk and the Bar Council is prepared to challenge the generational harm that will be inflicted upon our legal and justice system if there is not an adequate or sustainable level of funding provided.
“The Bar Council stands ready to therefore take any further action that will assist in the pursuit of this aim.”
The Irish government earlier this month 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 Irish 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.