Hundreds of barristers have today begun open-ended action over legal aid funding that could see the criminal justice system slowly grind to a halt within weeks.

Dozens of chambers have publicly declared they are adopting a policy of ‘no returns’ from today – withdrawing a longstanding gesture of goodwill in which barristers cover for colleagues on cases that have been ‘returned’ because the courts may have overrun or the case was rescheduled at the last minute and caused a diary clash.

The action – which the Criminal Bar Association stresses is not a ‘strike’ – is in response to the Ministry of Justice’s response to the recommendations of a government-commissioned criminal legal aid review.

In February, criminal barristers voted overwhelmingly in favour of adopting ‘no returns’ should the government refuse to increase criminal legal aid advocacy fees by 25%. The government’s package of criminal legal aid reform proposes a maximum 15% uplift, which would not come into force for months.

CBA chair Jo Sidhu QC said: ‘Criminal barristers can no longer afford to wait and, with every passing week, increasing numbers are leaving our ranks to find alternative work that offers a viable career. Without sufficient prosecutors and defenders, thousands of victims and accused will continue to face years of delay and the backlog in cases will grow ever longer. Government must act now or answer to a public that has already grown weary of excuses.’

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