Falling pay rates could make it ‘unaffordable’ for young barristers to pursue criminal legal aid work, the Bar Council warned.
A report on the fees paid to junior barristers under the Advocates’ Graduated Fee Scheme in criminal legal aid showed that the average annual earnings from Crown Court cases was £56,000, which the Bar Council said equates to £28,000 after the deduction of tax and expenses.
The figures, published by the Ministry of Justice, revealed that the median fee income had fallen by 8% from £61,000 in 2012-13 to £56,000 in 2014-15 (Composition and remuneration of junior barristers under the Advocates’ Graduated Fee Scheme in criminal legal aid).
Immediate past Bar Chairman Alistair MacDonald QC said: ‘This report provides clear evidence that barristers’ fees for criminal legal aid work have fallen in recent years owing to fee cuts.’
He said the cuts meant that the net income of barristers doing this work was ‘way below’ that of professions which require similar levels of qualification and expertise, such as doctors.
Criminal barristers, he said, are frequently required to work during the evening and at weekends. But despite this, he said: ‘At the very junior end, it is not uncommon for a barrister to put in a hard day’s work at a magistrates’ court and still fail to make the minimum wage.’
MacDonald added: ‘This report also shows that the payment structure provides little scope for career progression for criminal barristers.
‘It takes many years of practice and training at the Bar to prosecute and defend complex criminal cases, but if it is unaffordable for young barristers to pursue this line of work, we will find cases collapsing due to a lack of experienced counsel.’
Sam Mercer, Head of Equality and Diversity at the Bar Council, warned of the impact that the low fees would have on the diversity of the junior criminal Bar.
‘A low, flat, pay structure exacerbates the difficulties faced by talented female barristers who have to pay for childcare and it is a disincentive to those from modest financial backgrounds struggling with student debt,’ she said.