Salves for the Junior Bar

As funding, wellbeing and retention crises hit the publicly funded Bar where it hurts, Frances Judd QC and Stephen Knight are candid on pain points and turn arounds

The Family Bar

The fact that the number of junior barristers has gone down steadily since about 2011 should be a matter of concern for us all. Being a barrister is an immensely rewarding and worthwhile career. The fact that it can be hard to get started, and, like all forms of self-employment, can be precarious, has not translated into lower numbers of practising junior practitioners in the past, so why is it doing so now?

The answer is almost certainly financial. After finishing university, most graduates have levels of debt unthinkable to my generation. If they do not have a law degree they must find the funds for a further two years of study. Many specialist family sets are heavily dependent on publicly funded work, meaning that pupillage awards are nothing like as high as in commercial or civil sets, and the remuneration for junior barristers is not particularly high. No wonder it is hard to attract bright young graduates from diverse backgrounds to the profession. This is especially so given that the number of pupillages available in family law sets is not high. The icing on the cake, as several very junior members of the Bar have told me, is the uncertainty at the end of it all that a pupillage (likened by some to a year-long exam) will be translated into a tenancy.

For those who do manage to navigate their way through, there are further pain points. The Bar is not easy to combine with family life. This has not really changed – amongst other things I remember begging the childminder for forgiveness for being late yet again, missing the start of a family holiday, and always forgetting non-uniform or cake baking day at school. Twenty years ago though, there were no such things as case summaries, chronologies or schedules which had to be produced at least a day advance of the hearing, no 6pm advocates meetings and no case management emails. These matters all intrude upon family life in a way that leads some to decide it is not worth it and to leave. They are mostly, albeit not exclusively, women.

How can we ease the burdens?

So what are we doing about this, and what more can we do? Firstly the Inns do a great deal to help financially for both the GDL and BPTC year. In 2016 Middle Temple awarded £1.1m in scholarships and the other Inns do much the same. On its website, Lincoln’s Inn states that the budget for the 2018/9 academic year is £1,574,000. The Inns also have a budget for pupillage scholarships for those pupils whose awards fall below a certain level. Some of the Inns offer accommodation for pupils in London, and there is some assistance for mini-pupillages. The Family Law Bar Association is in the process of developing a scheme to assist students to undertake mini pupillages, particularly in London. We have set up a working group on retention of women at the family Bar, and held a seminar on the topic on 13 June at Middle Temple with Lady Justice Asplin, Sam Mercer from the Bar Council and myself on the panel.

"Perhaps we should think about offering pupillage much earlier than we do... perhaps pupillage awards should be spread over all the years of training and not simply the pupillage year"

None of this is enough of course. We need to think of more ways to ease the financial burdens, particularly for the GDL and BPTC. Perhaps we should think about offering pupillage much earlier than we do, so that those who invest such a lot of money in training for the Bar know that they will at least secure a pupillage at the end of it. Perhaps pupillage awards should be spread over all the years of training and not simply the pupillage year. Some chambers do this, but not many. It might also be possible to structure training and pupillage to allow part-time working.

Decent remuneration for a demanding profession

We cannot change the fact that the Bar is a demanding profession, nor that it often involves working in the evenings and weekends. We can, however, do our level best to fight for remuneration for publicly funded family work which is reasonable and reflects the hard work and dedication that goes into representing some of the most vulnerable members of society. We must also do our best to ensure that proposals for extended working hours do not impact further upon those with family responsibilities. It is hard to think of any specialist field of practice in which the importance of diversity is greater for we represent people from all communities and backgrounds.

Finally, we must never lose an opportunity to say to those who wish to seek a career at the family Bar that for the right person it is a thoroughly enjoyable and worthwhile career, and that most of us have never once regretted the choice we have made or have ever wanted to do anything else.

Contributor Frances Judd QC is Chair of the Family Bar Association, an IFLA accredited Children Law arbitrator and sits as a Recorder and a Deputy High Court Judge

The Criminal Bar

Completing the hardships of pupillage, and then obtaining tenancy, is seen by many as the end point of what they have striven for years to achieve at the Bar. However, it is at this point that the reality of life as a junior barrister really begins to hit home. Instead of fading into a distant memory, the long hours, low fees, and incredible stress of pupillage can begin to resemble an unending vista stretching out for the rest of a junior barrister’s career.

The junior Bar, particularly the publicly funded junior Bar, now finds itself in the middle of twin crises of wellbeing and funding. These crises are no accident, but have been caused by deliberate government policies which have made all of our lives harder.

Financial pressures

Whereas once the criminal Bar was a profession in which young practitioners could expect to earn a decent living, decades of real terms cuts to legal aid have eroded the living standards of publicly funded barristers. In criminal law, and in other similarly funded fields, barristers might reasonably expect to earn about the same as a similarly qualified teacher. However, a teacher does not come to their profession saddled with the same level of crippling debt as a barrister. Further, a teacher can at least expect to be paid a living wage during the latter stages of their training; many barristers earn no more than £12,000 a year during pupillage. Survival anywhere in the country, let alone in London where the majority of pupillages are to be found, is exceptionally difficult on such a wage. It is the cause of serious anxiety to many junior practitioners, and a disincentive to joining the profession for anyone without rich parents willing to support them financially.

Pupillage, though, is not the end of many junior barristers’ financial issues: it is common for junior practitioners’ incomes to decrease or become more unpredictable after obtaining tenancy, when the monthly minimum funding of pupillage ceases. For many, this leads to a position where career development loans fall due for repayment before earnings are stable enough to pay them.

"An understanding of the pressures on the profession can give us insight into ways in which members of the profession, collectively, can fight back"

Tied to the issue of low fees and crippling debt is the issue of payment. In too many chambers, and in all areas of law, junior practitioners are not prioritised for payment from solicitors. It is an unfortunate fact that those who can least afford to go without their fees are the least likely to have them meaningfully chased by chambers. This leads to particular issues for junior practitioners who are in court day in, day out, but who see no return for their investment of time and effort. This swiftly becomes demoralising.

Work-life balance

On top of low pay, the non-existence of a work-life balance plagues the junior Bar as much as it does the more senior Bar. It is the nature of the profession that every barrister encounters the unpleasant experience of receiving a brief the night before trial and being required to be prepared by 10am the next day. However, low fees coupled with constant overwork have the effect of eroding the mental health and wellbeing of junior practitioners. The mental health crisis in society generally is replicated and amplified at the junior Bar. The working conditions of the Bar combine with the often traumatising aspects of the job – encountering distressing evidence and upsetting situations on a daily basis – in a way which barristers are never trained to deal with. A perfect storm of factors is now leading to a crippling mental health crisis at all levels of the Bar, particularly at the junior end.

Using insight to fight back

However, an understanding of the pressures on the profession can give us insight into ways in which members of the profession, collectively, can fight back. As our view of ourselves as aloof professionals is stripped away, it becomes clearer that we are workers, being increasingly exploited by an employer who renders our lives and our work more precarious by the day. If we are able to view ourselves as workers, then we can organise as workers against our employer – the government – who fails to understand the power of our collective action.

The junior Bar is galvanised by the appalling conditions in which we are required to work. We cannot spend our whole professional lives like this, and we will react either by leaving the profession or, as the criminal Bar recently collectively resolved, by fighting back.

The Criminal Bar Association’s recent action delivered a very modest, but nonetheless real, increase in funding for the criminal Bar. However, whilst the action was welcome, a large proportion of the junior Bar feels that it came to an end too soon, having achieved less than what it could have done. Nonetheless, it demonstrated how united we can be, and what we can achieve through our unity.

In a context of continuing cuts throughout the public sector, the settlement of the recent dispute with the government is a small victory, but one which is unlikely to last for long. Further reviews of fees and working practices will come shortly, and are unlikely to be resolved in our favour. When they occur, we must resume our action against the precarisation of our profession, the destruction of our living standards, and the debasement of our justice system. As we reflect on our most recent action we will learn that together, as workers, we hold the power. If the Bar as a whole, and the junior Bar in particular, want to make our lives better, we must use that power.

Contributor Stephen Knight is a barrister working in crime, immigration, and public law at 1 Pump Court Chambers. He is a member of the CBA Executive Committee and writes here in a personal capacity.


Counselling Line for the Criminal Bar

The CBA has invested in a confidential counselling programme for both emotional and practical issues, available to members, their partners and any dependents between the ages of 16-24 and in full-time education. The service can be accessed exclusively by CBA members on 0800 169 2040. You will not have to provide any additional form of verification, and your call will be treated in the strictest confidence. Put the number in your phone now. Nobody hopes that you will need it, but we want you to have it if you do.

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Frances Judd QC

Frances Judd QC is Chair of the Family Bar Association, an IFLA accredited Children Law arbitrator and sits as a Recorder and a Deputy High Court Judge

Stephen Knight

Stephen Knight is a barrister working in crime, immigration, and public law at 1 Pump Court Chambers. He is a member of the CBA Executive Committee and writes here in a personal capacity.