SCORES of barristers gathered outside Winchester Crown Court as a fourth week of strike action got underway.

More than 20 lawyers armed with picket signs and posters put on their gowns and delivered empowered speeches on the steps to the court on Monday morning as the dispute over conditions and Government set fees for legal aid advocacy work rages on.

Just one-quarter of crown courts are sitting across the country today due to the scheduled five-day walkout. Similar demonstrations were also seen in Birmingham and Manchester.

In Winchester, few of the cases listed will be heard. The Chronicle understands many defendants were told not to attend as the court pre-empted the strikes.

Barrister of almost 20 years and member of the Western Circuit Bar Association, Mary Aspinall-Miles, lead the action in Winchester. She said: "None of us actually want to be here, we need to be here. The criminal justice system is on its knees and we are at breaking point. There are 2,400 criminal barristers in practice at the moment, and we are losing those barristers at an alarming rate.

"We lost 23 per cent in our earnings over the pandemic, but that has to be set within the overall frame of a 28 per cent cut of our fees over the last 20-odd years. We cannot continue. It is not about us, it is about maintaining law and order and maintaining the rule of law because without us you can't have trials in the crown court.

"It is no good the government saying they are going to be tough on law and order if they are not prepared to fund the back end of it, and we are the back end of it."

Most junior barristers are paid little over £12,000 a year, which Ms Aspinall-Miles insisted is the "real problem" driving people away from the profession.

She added: "That figure is below the living wage, and that is on top of the new crop of barristers who are coming to the Bar - after nearly five years of training - with £70,000 plus of debt. If you want the brightest and the best to prosecute as well as defend then we have to do something about it.

Hampshire Chronicle: Mary Aspinall-Miles speaking outside Winchester Crown Court Mary Aspinall-Miles speaking outside Winchester Crown Court

"We have a backlog in the system of 58,000 and rising, that was not created by us, that was created by the government repeatedly failing to invest in the infrastructure of the court. We have been warning about this since at least 2017 when we pleaded with the government to provide more sitting times in courts to allow us to deal with more work, but they refused to listen and now they are reaping what they sewed and trying to turn it on us."

Junior barrister Stephanie Painter of Pump Court Chambers said it took her seven years to come to the Bar as she had to take time out to work so she could fund her training.

Speaking outside Winchester Crown Court, she said: "It is unfortunately unsustainable. The way I'm trying to describe it to my friends is that if you or I were accused of something tomorrow the very real prospect is that as early as next year there will be no criminal barristers left to defend you. There was a news article not too long ago which said McDonald's workers get paid more than junior barristers - which is frankly quite embarrassing.

"I don't mean that disrespectfully to anybody, but we work 60-70-hour weeks as a minimum. A typical week as a very junior barrister can be attending magistrates courts all over the country earning a £40 fee for a mention hearing which may not even cover your train fare to get there. I am doing some more crown court cases now which pay slightly better, but they are so few and far between that it's essentially very difficult for me to pay my way and afford my mortgage."

Ms Painter said she has had to diversify her practice and branch out into public law enquiry as she can't afford to solely live off criminal work.

"A lot of people are deeply passionate about what we do," she said. "It is a career we love and we are here to make a difference and ensure people have a fair trial, but we just can't continue to do this under these circumstances."

Since starting the strikes, Ms Painter has said she has been overwhelmed with the support shown by defendants, victims and her fellow legal colleagues. However, with threats of repercussions coming from the Lord Chief Justice, she has said it is a "scary" position for her to be in.

Hampshire Chronicle: Stephanie Painter speaking outside Winchester Crown Court Stephanie Painter speaking outside Winchester Crown Court

She added: "I've got defendants in prison who I'm representing and victims of crimes awaiting their trials. We desperately don't want to be here - it's awful. This is an incredibly bold and scary position for me to take so early in my career. We are at risk of being pulled up in front of our regulators and being held in contempt of court by the judges. This is a huge risk for us both personally and professionally. But unless we do this today there will be no criminal Bar tomorrow."

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has offered to inject an extra 15 per cent into the system bring the strikes to an end.

A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: “The current strike is now forcing victims to wait for justice, despite a generous £7,000 pay rise for the typical criminal barrister. We encourage barristers to put victims first and prevent any further delays.”

However, Ms Aspinall-Miles has said claims barristers will receive a blanket pay rise of £7,000 are way wide of the mark. She has also said the proposed changes would see barristers working on cases which carry a legal aid certificate waiting until 2024 until they received any benefit from the additional funding.

She said: "It sounds very attractive but it isn't. When you add into the mix that inflation is currently running at 9.5 per cent and consider the losses we have already incurred, it really isn't what it seems. The line has been continually trotted out that we are getting a 15 per cent pay rise, that is totally incorrect. It is an overall spend which may not even be 15 per cent by the time it comes down to the cases.

"We are in the midst of a cost of living crisis and people may ask why we are doing this. We are entitled to be paid fairly for what we do, it takes five to six years for a barrister to be able to stand on their feet and open their mouth. It's not the case that because we're asking for a correction in our earnings that other people's money will be taken away.

"This funding comes from very different parts of the treasury and that needs to be made clear. It isn't just about a bunch of fat-cat barristers demanding more pay, it is about earning a fair wage and ensuring the wheels keep turning."

Barristers are expected to meet with MPs in Parliament as the search for a resolution continues.

Strikes will be suspended for a week from July 25 before recommencing between August 1 and August 5.

The CBA then plans to strike on alternate weeks, with no end date, with the action to remain under review and subject to the Government’s response.

Ms Aspinall-Miles added: "It's a slow burn, but it is having effect and all it takes is for the Lord Chancellor to listen."

A message from the editor

Thank you for reading this article - we appreciate your support.

Subscribing means you have unrestricted access to the latest news and reader rewards - all with an advertising-light website.

Don't take my word for it – subscribe here to see for yourself.

Looking to advertise an event? Then check out our free events guide.

Want to keep up with the latest news and join in the debate? You can find and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.