updated on 25 March 2014
These are tough times for the criminal Bar, and those aspiring to it. As all lawyers will be acutely aware, the Ministry of Justice has implemented/plans to implement swingeing cuts and 'reforms' to the legal aid budget (and not just the criminal legal aid budget), threatening to create a two-tier legal system (note I do not use the phrase "justice system") where the quality of one's representation is determined by the depth of one's pocket. Access to justice will be dealt a heavy blow from which it may never recover.
In unison with criminal solicitors, and with the support of many others (both at the Bar and elsewhere), those of us at the criminal Bar are doing everything we can to ensure the survival of our criminal justice system, which is renowned worldwide for its excellence and commitment to upholding the rule of law. We want to preserve this reputation, which has been hard won over centuries.
But even as it is, life at the criminal Bar is difficult: in many ways it will only get worse. This is true regardless of background, call or caseload.
For a start, the hours are long. If a case or any aspect of it takes all night to prepare, then we will take all night to prepare it. There are no office hours for us: we do what needs to be done, and we ensure that it is done to the very highest standard. The courts may only operate between 9:00am and 5:00pm, but our days are invariably much longer. This is true at every level of the Bar.
Our days are often further lengthened by travel. We do not limit ourselves to a particular court or even a particular area and as a result spend many hours - and considerable sums of money (for which we are not habitually reimbursed) - simply getting to court.
Another difficult aspect of life at the criminal Bar is the utter lack of job security. You can never 'settle'; never get complacent. A job well done may get you your next case, but you cannot live on it for very long. You must keep doing a good job, always ensuring that you are on top of your game: if you aren't, the work will not come. Even an excellent reputation, earned over many years, cannot be neglected lest one's practice wither. This is what keeps the job challenging and therefore interesting for most of us. But that doesn't make it any less difficult.
Lack of financial security is another difficulty faced by many at the Bar, regardless of the type or volume of work they do. It is one of disadvantages of being self-employed. We have no salary, no regular income: neither do we enjoy maternity/paternity leave or statutory sick pay. Things are quite simple at the Bar: if you don't work, you don't earn. Sometimes you work and still don't earn (this could be for a number of reasons, including - shockingly - travel costs exceeding the sum you're paid for attending court), but that's a story for another time... Then we have chambers rent to pay, meaning that a percentage of our income is automatically deducted so that chambers can continue to function. We also pay tax (that's right: we too are "hardworking taxpayers").
Financial insecurity takes on new meaning for those at the very junior end of the criminal Bar. Many of us are barely able to make a living, with late rent payments and unpaid bills facts of life. This is in spite of the fact that we are educated, skilled individuals who work long hours doing an extremely demanding job. I know first-hand how tough it is, when not of independent financial means, to sustain a career at the criminal Bar and so do not underestimate the difficulties facing those struggling to remain (and I note that they're not just those at the very junior end), as well as those who wish to one day come here.
In the first place, we're sometimes just not paid very much, thanks to successive governments continually cutting legal aid rates. This government is no exception, and has imposed cuts that will impact crown court work as well as the work barristers undertake in the magistrates' court. Dealing specifically the latter (for the most junior, this represents the majority of their practice), the solicitors that instruct us don't receive very much for preparing a case, with the result that our 'cut' isn't very much either. Things will, of course, become dramatically worse under this government's "reformed" system. That is assuming that solicitors are able to afford to continue briefing the Bar at all...
Let me give an example of the sort of fees many at the junior end stand to earn: a trial fee in the magistrates' court can be as little as £80. This is before any of the government's latest cuts to legal aid take effect. This sum represents a full day at court (not just the trial, but pre- and post-court conferences, legal arguments, discussions with your opponent or with witness service or probation), as well as the preparation that comes beforehand (eg, research and drafting) and the work that comes after (eg, attendance notes and advices on appeal). It must also cover your travel costs, unless you're fortunate enough to be reimbursed.
Even hearings in the crown court (eg, preliminary hearings and mentions) often pay so little that one doesn't have to travel very far before the fee is subsumed by the cost of train tickets.
With things so difficult - and about to get worse - can we really hope to attract the brightest and the best? Can we hope that the brightest and best already at the criminal Bar will remain here? A strong argument can be advanced that no, in fact, we cannot. I will not argue the contrary here. But I do hope that some at least will feel that the criminal Bar is still worth investing in (and are in a position to do so, although it will not be easy). It is a wonderful institution which ensures that justice is done and the highest standards are maintained in courts across the land. The chambers system ensures that young barristers - the QCs and judges of the future - are trained to uphold these standards, and therefore the justice system itself, too. This is what we are today fighting to preserve - whether by refusing to accept returns, participating in a day of action, or simply putting in the hours to prosecute or defend a case to the very best of our ability.
On a simpler level, we also fight to preserve a job which is one of the most rewarding I can imagine - in spite of the difficulties cited. Every day I am challenged: I have new cases to master, new legal issues to untangle, and new people to meet and persuade (whether that is the judge or jury I am trying to convince to see things in a particular light, or the client whose trust I must earn). My job is never dull and I have the satisfaction of knowing that my efforts, whether I am prosecuting or defending, make a material difference to someone's life. They also contribute to ensuring that justice is done and is seen to be done.
For all of these reasons I am determined to remain at and fight for the criminal Bar for as long as I am able. I know that this determination is shared by many others at the Bar. I can only hope that at least some of the brightest and best will see the value of this essential institution and come join the fight too.