This contentious country is no stranger to labor disputes, and each day brings its share of picket lines and protests. But last week marked the beginning of a new level of labor action in Britain.

The protesters wore wigs. Eschewing chants and placards, they stated their case in the crisp diction of the upper class. Their demands, however, were enough to warm the heart of any worker. Britain's barristers, the creamy top of the legal profession, want more money, and last week they took the government to court to get it.

In an hour-long presentation, black-robed and bewigged attorneys for the 5,000-member British bar argued that barristers were paid unfairly low wages by the government for criminal-defense work -- up to 90 percent of which is publicly funded here.

More importantly, the lawyers argued, the government had refused to honor its statutory obligation to negotiate with them. The lawyers sought and received court approval to proceed with a case against the lord chancellor, the government official charged with setting their fees.

The barristers want as much as 40 percent above what the government now pays them. Chancellor Lord Halisham, in keeping with government policy restricting raises to near the inflation rate, has authorized 5 percent, the annual average pay increase granted over the past three years.

Public-sector industrial workers are being held on a tight wage rein, and teachers are refusing a 6.9 percent government offer. The Treasury is concerned about the possible public impact of a major increase for that sector of the work force, suggesting that many Britons think it already makes too much.

But the barristers maintain they mean business and have launched their own public-relations campaign.

"The public is beginning to get the message that publicly funded work is not well paid," said Robert Alexander, chairman of the Bar Council, which is Britain's equivalent of the American Bar Association.

Barristers point to a trend toward job action among professionals: last year, British university professors went on strike for the first time.

Although the lawyers have made no public threats, there is strong feeling within the legal community that if their demands are not addressed, they might initiate a work slowdown or strike, which would mean all publicly funded criminal cases would be turned down.

"The profession would be very reluctant to take that action," Alexander said. "I would hope that what is being done at present would force the government to consider the situation on its merits."

There is no doubt that such a job action would have an impact; in Britain, up to 70 percent of the population is eligible for government-paid legal aid.

Unlike the United States, Britain has no salaried public defenders for indigent defendants. Any person charged with a criminal offense may first go to a solicitor -- the lower professional echelon for legal legwork -- who then turns the case over to a barrister for trial. In all but a minority of cases, the private legal practitioners then submit the bill to the government.

Although the country has its share of middle- and upper-class criminals, who theoretically could afford their own defense, statistics show that the government pays for as much as 90 percent of all legal work by barristers in criminal cases.

Compensation is computed on a fee-for-service basis similar to that of the U.S. Medicare system. Up to 3,000 barristers specialize in criminal work here. According to a bar-funded independent study last year, the average earnings of a barrister who handles criminal cases full time is $20,000 a year, before taxes and expenses.

According to the government, barristers are entitled to "fair and reasonable reward for work reasonably done." According to the study, "the present fee scales for barristers carrying out criminal legal-aid work fall far short of meeting that principle."

In turning down the report's conclusions that fair pay would require an increase of 30 to 40 percent, the lord chancellor said he was "not convinced" that "a number of key assumptions" in the survey were realistic.

According to government figures, he said in a letter to Alexander, the average court hearing time for guilty pleas was 0.7 hours. "The consultants have assumed that guilty pleas take a minimum of two hours," wrote Halisham, himself a barrister. "If so, they take a good deal longer than they did in my time."

Many barristers argue that fees are not only low but are slow to be paid. Max Findlay is a barrister specializing in criminal cases who said he left the profession five years ago for a more lucrative publishing career. "It took me four years to collect two-thirds of my fees," Findlay said. "There is still about one-third left" unpaid.

Findlay is among the many trained criminal lawyers who profess no small bemusement at the fervor with which the Bar Council is pursuing the pay case. The bar, he explained, has its own "class system like no other."

"Commercial law is the top of the heap," he said. "Insurance, shipping, corporate takeovers."

Findlay pointed to Bar Council Chairman Alexander, a commercial-law specialist whose annual income, according to press reports, approaches $1 million. Alexander, Findlay charged, "wouldn't know a criminal brief if it bit him on the bum in a dark alley."

Just beneath are the legal specialists in such matters as ships salvage, town-and-country planning or tax law. The next stratum is composed of a minority who do both civil and criminal law. The criminal specialty, Findlay said, "is right at the bottom. They're regarded as incredibly vulgar."

Alexander, who said he started his own career in criminal law, maintained that "we are totally united" on the demands for more pay. The current low standard, he said, "is a real threat to the administration of justice."

With private pay for civil and commercial work so much higher, and even many civil service salaries above the average criminal barrister income, "people are no longer going to be attracted" to the criminal bar, he said.