Barristers have won a 15% payrise, but the whole rotten system needs to go

Barristers strike
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Barristers have won a 15% payrise, after months of strike action, which put a spanner of the works of the UK’s legal system.

The Criminal Bar Association (CBA) demanded a 25% increase in legal aid rates, but barristers finally agreed to the 15% offer after the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) agreed to pay the higher rate for cases within the 60,000 Crown Court backlog.

57% of the CBA’s members voted to accept the MoJ’s deal.

Critical solidarity

At the Canary we maintain a stance of solidarity with workers taking collective action. We support defence barristers organising for better pay. Barristers who prosecute – on the other hand – are akin to cops, judges and prison officers.

In September, as the strikers voted to escalate their action, we wrote:

if strikes like this are going to help us move toward societal change, they need to be about more than just pay and conditions.

It’s not enough for the ‘justice’ system to go back to normal once the CBA’s demands are met. We need to bring this system to its knees for good. The CJS [Criminal Justice System] is one of the primary mechanisms which the ruling class use to dominate and repress us. It is responsible for untold suffering and misery. It is a racist system which disproportionately affects people of colour. For example, Black people make up 10% of the prison population in the UK, despite only accounting for 3% of the UK’s overall population.

Read on...

And whilst a 15% payrise for defence barristers may benefit some of the people who are brought before this racist, classist, transphobic and misogynist legal system, and need a decent defence, it will still leave the rotten system itself wholly unchanged.

Taking issue with the CBA

I take issue with one part of the CBA’s message to its members. As the Association announced the final ballot which ended the strike, it wrote:

The CBA remains committed to the future of the Criminal Bar and to the Criminal Justice System.

It’s clear that if our future is to be a just one, then it has to involve the downfall of the Criminal ‘Justice’ System, and the creation of community-led and truly democratic systems of transformative justice. Siding with the future of the CJS means siding with the oppressor.

A view on the strike from inside a segregation cell

Back in September, we published a statement from Kevan Thakrar, who is currently imprisoned in the segregation unit of Belmarsh prison. Kevan has been in prison since 2008, after being convicted of murder under the unjust and racially biased joint enterprise doctrine. Kevan and his supporters maintain that he was wrongfully convicted, and are campaigning for his release.

Kevan wrote:

if criminal barristers had a real belief in defending the innocent from wrongful imprisonment, they would make this strike about a lot more than just their pay-packets and in doing so could draw in the support of wider society.

It has not been the ever-decreasing standards of criminal trials – which have seen the introduction of anonymous witnesses, use of hearsay ‘evidence’, the slander that is bad character evidence, the ability for police and prosecutors to sit as jurors, the permissibility of double jeopardy or the mass use of the Joint Enterprise Doctrine – which has brought them out to protest. The campaigning organisation APPEAL set out 25 vital reforms to the criminal justice system earlier this year. It would not be difficult to adopt these as demands to go along with barristers’ quest for better rates of pay.

Today, the CBA has been victorious, but a system of oppression remains firmly and squarely in place. It is up to us to imagine a world without this system, and to fight for it.

Another prisoner’s perspective

We asked ex-prisoner, and anarchist, John Bowden for his perspective on the CJS. John spent over 40 years in the UK prison system. He said:

Essentially the criminal justice system exists as a state apparatus of repression and is the hard fist of that state, particularly exemplified by the prison system, whose inmate population is composed almost wholly of the poor and most marginalized, and disproportionately Black and ethnic minority, reflecting the institutionalised racism of the criminal justice system.

The deep structural class inequalities of this society require an apparatus of social control and repression to maintain “Law and Order”, and that is the prime purpose of the criminal justice system.  Some lawyers are motivated by a noble intention to legally empower the most disempowered and provide them with the means to challenge injustice and state abuse, but the reality is that small partial legal victories do not change the structural reality of a fundamentally unjust and unequal society or a legal and judicial system that exists to defend and maintain that society. 

True justice will never be achieved by a criminal justice system designed and intended to keep the poor down and maintain the social status quo. Those involved with that criminal justice system like lawyers, even when motivated by an intention to use the judiciary in a positive way to defend the powerless and most marginalised, should seriously consider if they’re just legitimising a system that exists for one sole purpose, to maintain and enforce the power of a system rooted in inequality and injustice.

Lawyers need to pick a side

In my opinion, we need to face two important facts. Firstly, the vast majority of barristers – including defence barristers (many of whom also prosecute) – stand with the establishment. Secondly, if we are to struggle against the state, we are going to need radical lawyers (that is, until the day when we can tear the whole rotten system down).

However, if lawyers are truly to be comrades, we need more than professionalism and careerism. We need true militancy and bravery. We need lawyers to take risks for the struggle, just like others must.

I’ve been involved in supporting comrades experiencing state repression for many years. Most recently, I’ve been supporting those criminalised after Bristol’s 2021 uprising against police violence. During my time as an organiser in this area I have met hundreds of lawyers, and only a tiny handful of them have displayed anything approaching radicalism.

It is possible to be a truly radical lawyer

Because of these experiences in my own communities, I’ve looked outside of the UK – at how people organise against state repression in other contexts. Occasionally, I’ve met lawyers who are integral parts of radical struggles, and who display bravery in opposing state oppression.

In Bakur, the part of Kurdistan within Turkey’s borders, an intense struggle against the state is raging. I’ve met defence lawyers who are part of radical organisations supporting defendants, prisoners and their families. These lawyers are prepared to take risks on behalf of their comrades, and many of them have been imprisoned themselves. When I visited Bakur this year, one lawyer told me that he had been arrested by Turkish police while he was representing a client in the courtroom. Another – Ibrahim Bilmez – was imprisoned for three years for representing Kurdistan Workers’ Party co-founder Abdullah Öcalan. Bilmez has since spent over a decade under investigation for terrorism.

Just two weeks ago, Salah Hammouri – a Palestinian radical lawyer – joined a hunger strike inside an Israeli millitary prison. He and his comrades are demanding an end to Israel’s policy of imprisonment without charge.

I’d be willing to bet that none of these radical lawyers believe in the state system which they have trained in. Their role as radical lawyers is to defend – and to speak out for – their comrades. It is possible to firmly take a stand against the ‘justice’ system, even whilst working as a defence lawyer within it

Our future lies in the downfall of this system

The CBA’s statement that it is committed to the “future” of the CJS is at odds with the change we need in society. Our future lies in the downfall of that system.

We need bravery and dedication from the UK’s radical lawyers. We need their complicity in building a movement which can challenge the system that they’re a part of. Most of all, we need them to pick a side and stand with the people against the system, instead of with the state, careerism and capitalism.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons/MassiveEartha (cropped to 770x403px), Creative Commons license 4.0

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  • Show Comments
    1. A refreshing change from the standard reformist line taken in so many left pieces on the criminal justice system. This socialist does not take an anarchist analysis, but restorative and transformative justice practices in all their multiple forms are certainly the future we all need. I recommend readers to the site transformjustice dot org for more information.

    2. “Barristers who prosecute – on the other hand – are akin to cops, judges and prison officers”. Akin to people who uphold and enforce the law and protect the country, its people and its institutions then? Sounds about right.
      And whilst it’s inspiring to hear about brave lawyers struggling for justice in Kurdistan, Palestine and elsewhere do you think those lawyers would rather operate under a system like ours or one like theirs?

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