Alex Deane is a Square Mile Common Councilman and Head of Public Affairs at Weber Shandwick
For the first time ever, barristers and solicitors are currently striking. You’re probably thinking, so what? Fat cats can squeal all they like. No doubt public opinion is against them, as they’re lawyers.
But public opinion is sometimes wrong. Those who work in the criminal law aren’t wealthy like commercial lawyers. They’re doing a public service. The first domestic duty of the state is a functioning justice system. To have a working court system, especially in the most important bit (i.e. criminal – the bit that can send people to prison, denying them their freedom) you have to have people who are at least competent. But if you pay at a level below subsistence, then no matter how idealistic, eventually competent people will have to leave, or not join in the first place.
So what do they actually earn? The government, I’m afraid, plays fast and loose with the truth about barristerial income. They publish an annual top ten earners on legal aid, plainly trying, essentially, to win over the the public against the “fat cats”. What they do with that list is just like the knowing misuse of “deficit” and “debt”. They don’t explain that earnings might be over several years, are before tax, are for a self employed person without pension, are pre-expenses like chambers rent etc.
The fact is that some barristers in criminal law are earning as little as £13,000 a year (and that’s after paying much more than that for the courses to qualify). There are more and more bankruptcies in the junior Bar and many are earning less than £25,000 a year; that’s before the expenses they incur and don’t get back. So many of them would literally be better off on benefits rather than working their 70 hour weeks.
Since 1997 fees for criminal cases have been cut by 40 per cent. The government is now proposing a further 30 per cent cut. If that happened to any other public servants there would have been riots by now. If you read nothing else about this, take a look at the junior Bar in their own words for a sense of what that means.
Put simply, the independent Bar, which the government is stamping out, work their guts out, at minimal cost – they also make a case go a lot faster and more efficiently – saving the state money. Any doubts about that will be removed quickly by watching someone defend themselves in court in person.
Not only have fees not gone up in a decade; they’re being cut again now, on top of all the cuts that have come already. A day in court for a criminal barrister for an appearance can often be the fixed rate of £84.50 – that’s before non-reimbursed travel expenses, which often amount to more than the cost of the fee. That is to say that the profession is being deliberately crushed. You can’t live on that, plainly. They know it. You and I know it.
When the Bar is destroyed, access to justice will suffer. The state will be able to do what it likes far more, and people will be subject to the power of unrestrained prosecution like never before in the modern age (and, by the way, many more guilty people will go unpunished thanks to inadequate prosecution). A strong independent Bar is a great barrier between power of state & individual. Though I’m sure that its destruction is just a coincidence…
I should declare an interest. I was at the criminal Bar for some years. This spiral has been happening for some time. I got out. I admire those who’ve stuck it out more than I can say.