Almost no criminal business happened in the Criminal Courts of Justice on Tuesday as hundreds of barristers took part in their first ever national strike over the Government failure to reverse recession-era cuts in criminal legal aid fees.
The one-day strike action is being supported by many criminal defence solicitors and by barristers specialising in civil work and led to the adjournment of hundreds of cases in the criminal courts.
No criminal business happened in the Central Criminal Court because, in light of the strike, matters had been adjourned in advance to other dates.
Among the cases affected was the trial of a Slovakian national, Jozef Puska, with an address at Lynally Grove, Mucklagh, Co Offaly, for the murder of schoolteacher Ashling Murphy at Cappincur, Tullamore, on January 12th 2022. Had it not been for the strike, a hearing of pretrial legal issues would have opened today rather than on Wednesday.
All 22 cases listed in Dublin Circuit Criminal Court today were adjourned by 11am.
Most listed criminal cases in the Dublin District Courts in the CCJ, apart from a small number of custody and other cases, were also adjourned in the morning due to what one judge, Judge John Hughes, described as “industrial action”.
Legal sources anticipated that pattern of adjournments was expected to be replicated in criminal courts across the country.
The CCJ was unusually quiet inside just before 10am today, the first full day of the new legal year, but an estimated 200 barristers, supported by some solicitors gathered outside on the steps.
Several carried file boxes emblazoned with slogans including: “Two thirds of criminal barristers leave practice after only 6 years” and “Cuts applied to fees 2008-11: 28.5-69 per cent”.
Among those taking part in the protest at the CCJ was a former High Court judge, Barry White, who returned to practice at the criminal Bar after his retirement. Labour Party leader Ivana Bacik, a qualified barrister, also attended, accompanied by her party’s Justice spokesman, Aodhán Ó Riordáin TD, and Senator Marie Sherlock, in support of the action.
Speaking in the Dáil, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said barristers have “every right to protest”.
“I can understand the case they’re making, just like public servants and the vast majority of people across the public and private sector, they’ve seen their pay and fees restored, but that has to be done by negotiation.
“It was always understood that it would have to be done as part of the budget for next year and also as part of discussion around reforms – when we reversed the fee cuts for GPs, when there were changes there was loss of private income, that’s the kind of debate that needs to happen.”
Mr Varadkar was responding to Labour TD Aodhán Ó Ríordáin who asked why the Government was acting like a bystander while “the criminal justice system falls almost in its entirety today in Ireland”.
The withdrawal of services was organised by the council of The Bar of Ireland, which has more than 2,000 members. The council has expressed disappointment at the lack of progress over years in reversing the cuts, implemented in 2008 under legislation reducing the pay of many public sector groups as part of the response to the financial collapse.
A core complaint is that, while the cuts have been reversed for most groups, they remain in place for professional fees for prosecution and defence work with criminal legal aid fee payments are still set at 2002 levels. This is despite barristers having co-operated with the delivery of efficiencies and reform in the provision of services, the council says.
Its case for fee restoration has been supported by the Minister for Justice and the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Minister has indicated the issue is subject of budget negotiations.
The Bar will await the outcome of the budget negotiations before considering the next step in its campaign, Bar Council chair Sara Phelan said. “We have been assured by the Minister for Justice, as late as the weekend on radio, that this is part of the budgetary process. The Minister for Justice has been supportive all along, we are going to wait and see what the budget provides.”
“If we’re not satisfied with what comes out of the process, then we are going to have to go back to members and see what out next step is.”
Barrister Jane McGowan, who was among the protesters, said she was called to the Bar 11 years ago, practices only at the criminal Bar and now practices mainly in the Circuit Court. “I prosecute, I defend, I represent complainants in rape trials and since I started the rates have remained the same but they are inherited rates since 2002.”
“I am one of the lucky ones who progressed out of the District Courts and it certainly is getting harder and harder for junior members to do that. The protest today is really with the junior members in mind, those coming up behind me, all of those on the steps, we are all looking out for each other.”
“Unfortunately, 2002 rates simply do not cut it any more for the work and the value that we offer to the criminal justice system.”
At Limerick Circuit Court, criminal cases were adjourned as 30 or so criminal law barristers engaged in the one-day strike action outside the courthouse.
Speaking from the picket line, criminal lawyer Cian Kelly acknowledged that, while “there are people at the top of the profession that are doing very well (financially), the “median salary” for many barristers is €46,000.
Law graduates are being tempted with “enormous money” to enter corporate law, making it “more difficult to attract the talent” to criminal law.
“We sit in courtrooms every day, and we look around the courtroom and we see that Gardai, prison officers, the probation services, court service staff, the judiciary, and solicitors, have had their pay restored – everybody else in the courtroom, bar us, has had their pay restored, and, we just want a bit of parity,” he said.
Some 50 members of the Cork Bar took part in a protest on the steps of Washington Street Courthouse.
Senior Counsel Tom Creed said without the reversal of pay cuts it won’t be possible to get “the best people” to remain in criminal law.
“I am at this over 40 years. When I started there was very little criminal work there – I could do it and do my civil work,” he said.
“It is different today. You have Anglesea Street (in Cork) which is all crime, the CCJ in Dublin, so practitioners are much more specialised and the problem is that 60 per cent are gone after five or six years because it is not sustainable, because it takes a while to build a practice.
“So the DPP only hires counsels that are experienced, so you would want to be five or six years in before the DPP is going to pick you to do an important case. And the problem is that if all the brains are going to the civil side we are going to lose (the best) with a drip, drip unless the fees are put in place. ”
Mr Creed said that there are “no millionaires practising criminal law.”
“Those who choose to do crime, and it is a choice, it is very fulfilling because you get to hone your advocacy skills – that is why people do it, not for the money.
“What we want is to ensure that the criminal side of things is kept in good shape because personally I am sure every citizen would like that the best available prosecutor is going to be the one to nail those criminals.”