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Black Letter Communications Blog

Expert pr advice for the legal sector

Striking barristers face communications challenge

This week criminal barristers go on indefinite strike at a time of record backlogs in the criminal courts. The story has received considerable media attention since the historic strikes were announced, from making headlines on major news channels and in the broadsheets to featuring in LBC phone ins, on Good Morning Britain and even Channel Four’s the Last Leg.

Reading and watching the media coverage, it has been apparent what a mountain there is to climb for criminal barristers trying to get their message across and the considerable challenge they face to gain public sympathy.

There is a huge lack of public understanding of how the criminal justice system works, let alone how legal aid funding is handled. The fact that barristers are self-employed adds further complexity to the issue, muddying the waters when compared to the simplicity of discussing annual salaries. All this means spokespeople are compelled to put in time educating their audience before they even begin to discuss the changes they are demanding.

They are also fighting against the overriding perception that barristers make a lot of money. The notion of ‘fat cat lawyers’ is very hard to shift given the high pay of civil barrister counterparts and the eye-watering sums that we all read about in relation to high profile legal actions.

As a legal PR with knowledge of the system, I still found myself shocked at how low the actual take home pay of criminal barristers is, a disbelief that was expressed by both broadcast interviewers and the general public.

Being lumped in with other striking industries has also been a challenge. Whilst there are common themes, the issues around criminal legal aid go back decades, predating both the pandemic and the current cost of living crisis. Ignored for so long whilst the diligence of the barristers themselves propped up the system, the fact matters are coming to a head now, when so many other industries have also decided to strike, makes it harder to put across the historic problems of underfunding and the impact low fees have had that are particular to the legal profession.

Likewise, the 25% increase demanded can sound hefty, without the context of decades of underfunding, the recommendations of the Bellamy review and an understanding of why the refusal to make any increases retrospective is so problematic for barristers who get paid when a case ends.

In addition to this complex picture, criminal barristers are also working against a lack of public sympathy for those accused of a crime. Unlike healthcare or education, few of us have firsthand experience of going through the justice system and there is a general sense that as a law abiding citizen, this will never happen to you. An emphasis on victims of crime and the long wait for justice has been important in countering this.

Up against these challenges, barristers have been achieving considerable cut through, debunking misconceptions with clear and consistent messaging on real take home pay, on the history of underfunding and how the justice system operates. In addition to leading criminal barristers, interviews have featured junior barristers explaining the impact of low fees on their day to day lives, with stories shared on social media.

As barristers, spokespeople are of course adept at putting their case and the profession has the benefit of articulate and often high-profile advocates who are experienced media operators. They appear to have considerable support from the wider legal profession with few negative voices other than former and current government ministers.

As the strike continues, they will have to contend with suggestions they are the cause of the backlog, with government animosity towards both striking workers and the legal profession more generally. All of this against the backdrop of the energy and cost of living crises that will continue to dominate the airwaves.

After a strong communications campaign that has raised systemic problems long confined to the pages of the legal media, for the sake of our justice system we must hope that the government takes notice and that both sides come together to negotiate and resolve the strike before it fades from the headlines.

barrister's wig