Criminal barristers deserve justice

criminal court

It’s time to do all we can to support the Criminal Bar Association and every barrister who joins this strike action, our CEO and Founder Melissa Davis writes in her latest blog.

One of the reasons I ended up in the legal sector was because of a barrister. We were in a long term relationship and I thought it would give us more in common. It didn’t and he married another barrister.

That’s a bizarre admission, you might think.

Well, the reason I mention it is because he has a very good income. Annoyingly, not so much when we were together. I was around for the student bit and the other days as a pupil barrister where the bundles arrived at 6pm for a 9am hearing half-way across the country the next day.

He didn’t end up practicing criminal law. He went the route of privately-funded work and he does well at it. He ended up driving a sports car and living in a four-bed house in his 30s.

If you’ve been listening to some people in Government and some of the media in recent days, then you’ll also be thinking that’s the norm.

Barristers are all minted. Thousands of pounds a day. Maybe even an hour. All of them.

Spoiler alert: THIS ISN’T TRUE.

Facts, facts, facts

I’ve been in the profession for 17 years and I’ve been close to it for longer, due to my relationship choices in my younger years. So I would like to think I understand the difference between a lucrative practice and a junior criminal barrister – but what about those outside of the profession?

Sir Christopher Bellamy’s recent review found that new criminal barristers could earn as little as £9,000 a year once costs are factored in. Barristers with experience between zero and two years’ experience averaged an income of £25,100 before expenses, including travelling – or just £18,800 net.

When you factor in the amount of time they spend preparing that’s why some junior criminal barristers say they are effectively working for a minimum wage.

That’s bad enough outside London. It’s even worse for those working in the capital. And then consider how much it’s taken to get to the Bar. Tens of thousands of pounds in university fees and other expenses which will need to be re-paid at some stage.

Even when careers progress, average earnings are not what people think they are. Sir Christopher’s review found that the median salary for a criminal barrister in 2019-20 was £79,800. Not a bad income but certainly not lavish. This figure has been grasped by some media commentators as the norm – perhaps even the starting ‘salary’ and it only goes up from there.

Hang on a minute though. That’s a mid-point, so some high-profile barristers who have been working in the profession for tens of years will earn much more. Which means that many junior criminal barristers are earning much, much less than that median salary.

And that’s not just a problem for them. The issue of earnings may be a long-standing one in the criminal barrister world but it’s been one for so long – I reckon for all my time in the sector at least, so safely 20 years – that many barristers have moved on. We’ve lost their skills to other areas of law and other industries. A sad loss.

The issue isn’t going away. The increasingly stark truth – but not one you’ll read in some papers – is that many of the most capable criminal barristers are leaving. That creates huge issues, not just in replacing them but also with the pipeline to the judiciary. No judges, no trials, no justice. It’s as simple and as stark as that.

Misinformation matters

So, the misinterpretation of figures is telling a very different, very wrong and potentially very damaging narrative longer-term. When we look outside the echo chamber of our profession, the reality of life as a criminal barrister just isn’t understood. The image is that barristers – ALL barristers – earn huge sums of money. So, what are they striking for?

Does the person on the street understand the difference or are they assuming all lawyers are fat cats, they’re all on huge salaries and they all drive around in the latest Porsche?

It doesn’t help when the Daily Mail parrots a lot of nonsense and the narrative is further secured that ALL barristers earn a mint. They chose law for the money alone and they don’t care a jot about the rule of law or the legal system being shattered into a million pieces.

We all need to act.

We need to set the record straight. All of us in the sector. After all, this all affects the image of the legal sector – which isn’t always the best to start with. So we are all in this together.

We’ve seen the attacks on the Judges – ‘enemies of the people’. We’ve seen the attacks on ‘lefty lawyers’. Should we be surprised that it’s now the criminal barristers’ turn?

Truth will out

When the Criminal Bar Association announced the result of its ballot on strike action, it was able to claim the support of 80% of its members for escalation – 79.45% to be accurate. What it said also bears repeating:

‘Given that many members have been away during this month, the increased level of participation in this latest ballot speaks volumes about the strength of feeling amongst colleagues across all six Circuits.

‘We take great pride in the fact that our members have so consistently demonstrated such a deep commitment to the democratic process. It reflects an unshakeable underlying belief in the power of collective action and a demand to be heard.’

Hear, hear. There may have been a shortage of commentators from one side of the political spectrum queuing up to attack barristers but it isn’t one way traffic. Plenty of others have flagged the lack of investment in our criminal justice system and the cuts to Courts and other areas of the judicial system.

When the CBA flags a backlog of 58,000 cases in Crown Courts, something has clearly gone awry – and it was happening long before the pandemic. No amount of incendiary headlines – Raab: ‘Justice is being held to ransom’ is the latest Mail offering today – can change the facts.

‘Needless and indefensible’ was the soundbite choice of the Justice Minister today. Really? How long did he expect barristers – intelligent, highly skilled people, all – to accept declining wages, cuts to courts and creaking facilities in those that remain?

It’s time for us all to do what we can for our colleagues at the Criminal Bar.

It’s time to help

Share what you can on social media – especially anything that shows the true facts about the life and earnings of the average criminal barrister. Challenge anyone you hear pedalling the false facts churned out daily by journalists in some media outlets and Government ministers and of course the keyboard warriors on social media.

I may not have felt like I had enough in common with one particular barrister back then but now as I operate within a profession that I love and admire I will stand alongside my many friends and colleagues in the Bar who need our support.

We will certainly do what we can at MD Communications. The CBA has our support. It should have everyone’s. This matters.

You can’t have Justice on the cheap. And our superb criminal barristers deserve justice.

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