Below the Bar: Junior barristers earn less than minimum wage

October 15, 2020

2 min read

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What's going on here?

The Bar Council have highlighted how some junior barristers are effectively receiving less than National Minimum Wage (NMW when dividing their total income into an hourly rate that reflects hours worked.

What does this mean?

The Bar Council recently submitted a Spending Review to the Treasury. In this submission, the income of publicly funded junior criminal barristers equated to around £6.25 per hour, based on a typical 40 hour working week. To contextualise this figure, NMW demands employers pay at least £6.45 per hour to those over 18, hence the uproar the Bar Council’s claim has provoked.

To some extent, the claim is misleading. Pay structures for these junior barristers centre on court appearance fees, while there is also the option to mix private cases billable by the hour with these public ones to supplement income. Ultimately though, it is possible that these particular barristers could receive less than £13,000 per year pre-tax once expenses and memberships are deducted. This is not the first time the incomes of junior barristers have fallen under the spotlight either. Most notably, in January last year the Houses of Commons recruited a barista position on a salary higher than that of the average junior legal aid barrister.

What's the big picture effect?

What this recent Spending Review really highlights is that this level of pay is not at the market rate nor at a level that fairly compensates for the qualifications and training required to become a barrister , which currently takes a minimum of five years, with the bar course alone costing £19,000. The lower pay to publicly funded barristers becomes more insulting given how fundamental they are to the expectation of clearing a 500,000 plus backlog of CPS cases which has also come under scrutiny during the pandemic.

The Spending Review also illuminates years of continued cuts to the legal aid budget – an overall decrease of 29% between 2010 and 2019 when judged as spending per person in real terms (inflation-adjusted). These cuts include a 39% decrease in the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) budget, the brunt of which has evidently been carried by junior criminal barristers. One proposal by the Bar Council would add £2.48bn to the annual justice budget, yet even this seemingly large sum amounts to just an extra 22p per person per day!

Moreover, we must realise the palpable social consequences of an underfunded legal system. Not only does the growing backlog of CPS cases hinder access to justice itself, the Bar Council also stressed that cuts “disproportionate(ly) impact on diversity in our profession.” Indeed, this concern was recently legitimised when Alexandra Wilson – a mixed-race female junior barrister – was mistaken for a defendant three times and then once again for a journalist, all in one day !

While the Bar Council’s headline-grabbing wage is deceptive, it does expose the harsh financial realities aspiring barristers face, as well as the effects on access to justice and legal careers on the whole. Perhaps it becomes less surprising the current government is willing to break international law over the Brexit bill, when for years it has been neglecting justice at home.

Report written by Sebastian Stacey

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