The Young Criminal Bar: steps to secure our future

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John McNamara on the silvering of the profession, tumbling fees and deleterious listing practices: as the number of young barristers falls year on year, the CBA Young Bar Committee has been set up to tackle the biggest issues affecting retention

The average age of barristers continues to rise. In 2015 there were 3,120 practising barristers aged between 25 and 34. In 2019 that fell to 2,972. The number of self-employed practising barristers aged between 25 and 34 has fallen year on year, with 2019 being the exception. One suspects the statistics are worse at the criminal Bar. Not enough young barristers want to undertake criminal work. Those who do often move away from the practice area after a few years. Some decide to only undertake criminal law as one of a number of specialisms. Some leave the independent Bar altogether.

All criminal barristers under 30 will have recent memories of being the youngest person in a robing room by quite some way. This silvering is an issue which must be addressed if we want to maintain the standards and quality of the criminal Bar in the medium to long term. We lose too many talented barristers, particularly women. Further, the loss of young practitioners has serious consequences for the future diversity of our criminal judiciary.

With those issues in mind I am grateful to James Mulholland QC for setting up the Criminal Bar Association’s Young Bar Committee. This committee, co-chaired by Alejandra Tascon and myself, will seek to address why so many young members leave the profession. For a long time there have been calls for a strong, consistent and visible representation for the most junior members and pupils of the CBA. This committee is that voice.

We will seek to tackle the longer-standing concerns faced by the young criminal Bar. We will also look to increase engagement with the young Bar on the issues they face in the wider criminal justice system. The committee’s conclusions will feed into the CBA executive officers and assist in identifying and providing solutions to issues.

The committee has been designed to ensure that there is a range of call, including pupils, and representatives from across the country. This truly is a national group. The first of our monthly meetings was successful in opening a dialogue on some of the issues faced on all circuits, and other issues which differed depending on where in the country we practise.

Understandably much of the time was given over to a discussion on fees. The fees for publicly funded criminal work is one of the biggest issues operating against attracting and retaining young people. The committee will seek better communication with the junior profession as to what happens with fee negotiations with the government. We discussed a range of issues including the difficulties faced with low magistrates’ court fees (appallingly low at £50 for a hearing or £75 for a half day trial in the South East). There are no easy fixes; fees are a political issue and require considerable work. It may be that a complete rethink is required on how fees in the magistrates’ courts are paid. Equally ensuring fees are adequate for all types of work young practitioners take in their first few years requires monitoring. The CBA Young Bar will feed into discussions on future fee negotiations.

For many junior criminal barristers frustration has continued to build despite the Criminal Legal Aid Review accelerated asks finally being delivered in September. Young barristers have attended court in person throughout all the regional and national lockdowns, putting their health at risk. We were designated as keyworkers. Without us the criminal courts would simply not have operated. Yet the income of many tumbled. Some were forced to take other work outside of the legal sphere. I know of one individual who was forced to take shifts in a supermarket to cover the rent. Many of the most junior fell through the gaps of the self-employed assistance scheme. The lack of government support for those young publicly funded barristers has not passed unnoticed.

Engaging with and engagement from the Western, Midlands, Welsh, North and North Eastern Circuits is vital. At our meeting we discussed particular issues occurring on those Circuits such as listing practices to reduce the backlog, created prior to COVID-19 and exacerbated during lockdown. Those practices include the Extended Operating Hours pilot and the increasing use of Saturday courts. We all agreed that these practices would further erode our work-life balance and drive away the most talented. It is firmly in our sights as an issue to be addressed.

Despite all the above I am hopeful for the future. The committee has some brilliant individuals who will no doubt rise to the challenge. We want to represent all young criminal barristers across England and Wales. We want to tackle issues that face practitioners on the ground. If you have an issue to raise, please contact us: YBC@criminalbar.com 

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John McNamara

John McNamara is a barrister at 5 St. Andrew’s Hill. He is the Assistant Secretary of the Criminal Bar Association and Joint-Chair of the CBA Young Bar Committee.