Fat cats or poor hacks? Why criminal barristers are refusing to work – and why you should care

Busting the myths about the criminal bar.

Faraz Shibli
5 June 2018
barrister legal aid 2014 protest.jpg

Image: 2014 walk-outs by criminal barristers over legal aid cuts - action has now escalated. Credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA Images, all rights reserved.

Since 1 April, criminal barristers in England and Wales have been refusing to go to court.

What has incensed our learned friends so much as to leave defendants unrepresented in the dock? The latest wave of cuts to legal aid that would bring an already creaking criminal justice system to its knees.

Social media comments suggest, however, that many members of the public are unmoved:

‘Will they now have to drive Porches instead of Lamborghinis?’

‘One phone call to [my] lawyer and two letters written by [my] lawyer. Bill was over £500. Difficult to justify how much they charge!’

Sadly, many people like the commenters above confuse legal aid work, which is publicly funded, with private work. They’re therefore probably unaware that some barristers earn as little as £12,000 per year.

Here’s how—and why you should care.

Legal aid work involves barristers representing people who can’t afford to pay privately. Those barristers aren’t paid by the people they represent, but by the state. The vast majority of criminal cases are publicly funded, and many involve representing some of the most vulnerable people in society—including children, the mentally ill and the homeless.

Many barristers take on exclusively (or almost exclusively) legal aid work—I was one of them. In criminal cases, it’s common for barristers early on in their career to represent someone at court for under £100—and sometimes as little as £50.

That includes all case preparation, travel time (often to another part of the country), time spent in conference with the client, time spent waiting to get called on, time spent in court, time spent advising the client and their solicitor on the result (potentially including the prospect of an appeal) and time spent writing up a record of all of the above afterwards.

From that figure, the barrister (who’s typically self-employed) will take off their travel costs; their clerks’ fees (typically 10–20 per cent of the barrister’s fee); their practising certificate, professional membership and annual training fees; the cost of their legal reference books (hundreds of pounds); and the cost of their wig, gown and other required items of court dress (hundreds of pounds).

That’s before tax.

It’s not difficult to see how many barristers can earn well below the minimum wage—or even end up paying to go to court. In my first year as a barrister living in London in 2008, I was in court five or six days a week (including some Saturdays) and preparing cases at home on Sundays.

For my efforts I earned the princely sum of £10,000.

Since then, repeated cuts to legal aid have meant barristers’ fees have plummeted more than 40 per cent in real terms.

Can you think of any other profession that has faced anywhere near this level of swingeing cuts?

But this isn’t about legal aid barristers whinging about how little they’re paid—no one does this job for the money. It’s about protecting access to justice.

Fewer people are now eligible for legal aid, meaning many are left to represent themselves in the criminal, family and civil courts in cases that can have life-changing consequences for them.

I can’t count the number of elderly and mentally ill defendants I’ve seen arguing their case alone in front of a judge, fighting for their liberty. It’s shameful.

It’s also crucial for justice that the criminal bar attracts the best and the brightest from a wide range of backgrounds. It has become nigh on impossible for students who aren’t from privileged, middle-class families, backed up by the bank of mum and dad, to thrive—or even survive—as criminal barristers. Some have spoken out about being even unable to afford their train ticket to court or relying on their Boots Advantage Card to be able to afford lunch.

These situations aren’t uncommon, and they show how little successive governments have valued our criminal justice system. 

Yes, the most experienced criminal barristers—QCs and the like, who’ve been working for decades and deal with complicated and high-profile murder and terrorism trials—are paid very well. But they’re absolutely not representative of the criminal bar, despite the fat-cat stereotype the tabloids love to peddle.

The question is: why on earth would someone want to become a criminal barrister nowadays—to rack up huge amounts of debt in university fees and the necessary further years of training to earn a pittance for what is extremely hard work, with no minimum wage, no maternity leave, no paid holidays and no pension?

I applaud the criminal barristers now refusing to work in protest. And I’d be joining them, if I hadn’t already thrown in the towel and left the bar two years ago.

Can there be a green populist project on the Left?

Many on the Left want to return to a politics of class, not populism. They point to Left populist parties not reaching their goals. But Chantal Mouffe argues that as the COVID-19 pandemic has put protection from harm at the top of the agenda, a Left populist strategy is now more relevant than ever.

Is this a chance to realign around a green democratic transformation?

Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 22 October, 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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