It’s not about the lawyers – its about YOU!

Lots of pictures of bewigged barristers with placards about today*. Out on strike because of fee cuts, or so goes the oversimplified tag line. But this story is not about the lawyers at all, although it has been propelled in that direction because the criminal bar are responding to the recent release of statistical information by the MoJ that gives the impression that the income of the average criminal defence barrister is far more attractive than the rather grim reality (in short something like £25k p.a. BEFORE vat (20%) and income tax, sick leave, pension or holidays). They are right to be irritated about those inaccuracies, but that is for another blog post.

No. It’s not about the wiggy ones at all. And its not about their fees**. It’s about you. The potential defendant. The wrongly accused. The smeared. The one on the wrong end of a malicious allegation. The one who has been the victim of mistaken identity. The one who has made a stupid stupid mistake that they would never normally make.

Yes you. Because it’s not even just about the criminals, the ones who have committed actual crimes. It’s about all of us who could one day end up charged with an offence. And who need not just a defence lawyer, but a good defence lawyer.

Well I keep my nose clean, it won’t happen to me. Right? Wrong. People like you and me do end up charged and standing trial.

Ever let someone else use your computer? What if they downloaded some dodgy pron and you took the machine in the shop?

Ever been through a messy divorce or separation, had a malicious allegation or an anonymous call to the police to get you into trouble? Ever done something stupid to your ex or their new partner? You know, keyed their car or kicked a door or sent a really horrid text? Did your ex get a non-molestation order against you (restraining order)? You won’t have got legal aid to defend yourself against that. But you’ll be wanting a defence lawyer if you are accused of breaching that order by going to the house or contacting her – because that’s a criminal offence.

Ever been caught up in a fight just trying to protect a friend or to break it up? Even though you weren’t looking for trouble.

Ever been in a car accident? Ever driven a bit too fast? Or when you were just a little bit worried you might still be over the limit?

Ever broken the law? Just a little bit?

Ever been stopped and searched for no good reason?

Were you a bit of an angry young man or off the rails?

Ever had someone think you were perving them when you weren’t?

Got a secret that might make you an easy target or that might look all bit wrong if you were suspected of a crime? You know, you used to use drugs but only recreationally. You drink a bit too much. The police were called when you argued at the time you split up…? One of your colleagues accused you of harassment (even if she had made it all up). Ever stolen a shopping trolley or a bollard on a student night out?

I’m pretty confident that one of these applies to you or a member of your family or one of your friends. You might never have been charged with a criminal offence and you probably never will. But you could be.

I’m pretty confident that people like Michael De Vell, Colin Stagg, Barry George, the Grillo sisters, that GP accused of murder by euthanasing a patient, were all pretty glad of their defence teams. They were all ultimately acquitted, but until it happened to them I bet they thought it never would happen to them.

And it’s not even just about the defendant. It’s about the victim too. And the victim’s family. And witnesses. Not just because less good defence lawyers means less good prosecution lawyers. But because convicting the wrong defendant doesn’t help anyone. And nobody wants the real rapist / murderer etc to walk free. And because ham fisted cross examination is worse than tough but fair cross examination.

So that’s what this is about. It’s about the fact that the changes that are proposed will force solicitors firms out of business, and will make it impossible for new entrants to the bar to get a toehold, make it impossible for barristers chambers to survive.

There are already firms and chambers which have closed and cases where defendants have been unable to find a lawyer to represent them. At the moment they are few and far between. But that barristers (and solicitors) have been on “strike” today in such numbers, exposing themselves to potential complaints, disciplinary action and contempt of court is a pretty clear indicator that things are getting desperate. The bar are not really into histrionics and nor are they known for their radicalism. They believe in process, in responding to consultations with reasoned, evidence based argument. They believe that process has broken down.

You don’t need to like barristers or solicitors much. And they don’t need to be paid a gazillion pounds to do a good job. But you do need to understand that this IS about you. And about your legitimate expectation of a defence lawyer who will do a good job when you need them.

*There is wide press coverage of the action in the press, for example here. I recommend this video. Or google at your leisure.

**It’s not even about my fees. I’m a family barrister and whilst there are issues with legal aid in family work they are different issues, and that is not the subject of this post. I do not undertake criminal legal aid work.

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43 thoughts on “It’s not about the lawyers – its about YOU!

  1. “something like £25k p.a. BEFORE vat (20%) and income tax, sick leave, pension or holidays”

    Your turnover is less than £25k and you’re paying VAT? You’re having a laugh aren’t you! You don’t have to register for VAT unless your turnover is over £79,000 p.a.. Are these people registered for VAT? Are you Lucy? You give too much away!

    Pensions don’t attract income tax. Get your facts straight before you post such drivel.

    • Oh dear Brian. Read the post. I’m not talking about my income. I’m talking about the income of the criminal bar. The higher figures of £100k plus relied on by the MoJ include vat. You may be correct that the junior members of the bar whose income has never crossed the threshold are not vat registered, but it is common practice (or used to be when I started) to register voluntarily at the outset – thus being able to reclaim vat paid out against vat in. At the criminal bar in particular income in one year can be higher because it represents a catch up on work spanning several years, whilst in other years it will be very thin – so it may be that it is necessary to register for vat even though the average income is not at the threshold.

      What I said was that the income was before vat and income tax, but clearly that isn’t intended to mean vat which isn’t in fact payable. Even ignoring vat – as a rule of thumb you can deduct 20% for chambers rent, a chunk more on travel expenses, plus other expenses such as training and legal books and resources – followed by income tax, NI contributions, pension contributions (if applicable – many I suspect aren’t making contributions) and any time off for whatever reason will result in a downturn in income. As a rule of thumb I reckon that 50p in the pound or less will be actual income.

      • Minimum wage for the over 21s is £6.31/hour. 40 hour weeks working 46 weeks a year (yes that’s 6 weeks off including bank holidays) and you’re earning £11,610.40 a year. No VAT, income tax and NI contributions would be very low, I can’t be bothered to calculate it, but you’re saying criminal barristers clear only £12,500/year? That’s the current situation, but they want to maintain that? If it’s that bad, go and get a better job. Or maybe there’s some mis-information here?

        On the point of legal aid, if you need it to get a fair hearing, why doesn’t everyone get it? Why do civil cases not get it? Why are the courts so poor at getting the right outcome you need to employ an expert to prove you’re innocent?

        • I would say Brian, that there are probably a good number of criminal barristers who do only clear that much a year. And they will almost all be working more than 46 weeks a year, probably 51 for most, and probably a working week of 60+ hours. They will pay VAT, and they will pay expenses.

          You may not need legal aid per se to get a fair hearing but in criminal cases you do need good representation. And for many that can only happen if there is legal aid. In civil cases I would rather see legal aid retained – but in family cases it has largely been abolished. I think that is shortsighted, and some cases will not afford a fair trial as a result – but the situation in family cases is not a justification for abolishing legal aid in criminal cases.

    • In order to permit hearings in cases to be done by junior barristers they must also be registered for VAT. The government’s payment provisions insist on it. Thus, people who would not otherwise have to register, must do so in order to be able to work.

      The unnecessarily aggressive tone of Brian’s comment is unjustified at the best of times. Absent any basic research it sounds worse. What is his proposition? That everyone is a liar or that he is a genius? Either way, not helpful – and wrong.

    • As well as what others have said about voluntary VAT registration, another good reason to do it is that it’s sometimes necessary to pays fee income on to others who have worked on the same case. It’s much simpler to deal with if everyone is VAT registered.

  2. Are you trying to say that the MoJ is lying, conspiring to harm lawyers and possibly the general populace? Was anyone forced to take on these jobs. If this is as harmful as you say it may be then it will be sorted out eventually. Maybe you should trust your government officials of having everyone’s best interest at heart.

    • That is the point John. Nobody can be forced to take on these jobs and in future they may choose not to do them. Because they have mortgages to pay, and because there are other ways to provide financial stability for their families. Suggest you re-read the title of this post – the point is that may not be great for defendants.

      • I am sorry if your own court system’s legal aide seems a little unfair however the MoJ has competent people working for them diligently crunching numbers to come up with the best possible outcome when there is no easy choice.

        Do you honestly believe that the MoJ is looking to convict innocent people for fun? I am sorry if you and Booker believe that the government is conspiring against people for nefarious reasons.

        If you think legal aide should be expanded where are they to make the cuts to afford to do so? It may seem unfair to you however I am sure the MoJ believes this to be the best choice out of all of the bad options.

  3. […] The endgame of pay cuts for crim­i­nal lawyers is the end of the inde­pen­dent criminal-defense bar. As Lucy Reed writes in It’s not about the lawyers – its about YOU!:1 […]

  4. […] The strike: It’s not about the lawyers — it's about YOU! [Pink Tape] […]

  5. Free legal aid for unscrupulous lawyers of undeserving immigrants who have outstayed their welcome, not to mention equally unscrupulous Resolution members and their friends at the bar who make false allegations on behalf of single mothers in family law cases. I guess that’s why people like me needed to defend themselves against accusations of perving, only that I’m a normal separated father in regular employment who earns too much to get a penny in legal aid.

    • Yeah, Paul your arguments about family legal aid are well rehearsed elsewhere on this blog. But this post is not about that. It’s about what defence we should have if (wrongfully or otherwise) charged with a crime. Would you turn away a defence barrister if you were in that situation? I’m guessing not.

  6. I wholeheartedly support the British lawyers over the issue of legal aid cuts.

  7. What is so wrong with barristers being so nakedly self interested and striking because they are simply unhappy with the huge cuts? The public might not like the thought of barristers protecting their own interests but who can likes Bob Crow? It is not a popularity contest – it is about what is effective. The criminal bar should have gone on strike years ago rather than wait until the last possible moment.

  8. Well the government is saying the AVERAGE income for a criminial barristor who only does legal aid is £84,000. You say £25k, I don’t believe you, I tend to believe the government.

    I’ve posted what I believe to be the rates for legal aid work, you’ve confirmed they are the rates. Looking at those rates superficially you don’t have to charge much work to legal aid to make £25k a year. The lowest rate I can find is £25/hour, not £6.31/hour minimum wage.

    There was a barrister on the news last night said she used to earn £80k, but now it’s down to £30k or £40k. Funny she can’t remember exactly how much she makes now, perhaps she should have checked on her tax return before she started protesting about the cuts.

    I don’t believe you are hard up, show me the evidence. Show me a survey of criminal barrister who only do legal aid work, show me what the distribution of income is?

    Without the evidence to back up your claims, you don’t have a case.

    • Brian, you are entitled to your opinion. But don’t forget the govt are quoting stats from 2009-10 before the last round of cuts, and before the 17.5% of further cuts that are proposed. So the £84,000 even if accurate is no longer £84,000 and will be even less shortly. And it is not a salary it is a gross income before expenses AND tax.
      The rates for payment are by hearing – there is generally no additional payment for hours spent preparing a case when a barrister is out of court. You cannot multiply a notional hourly rate by the number of available working hours as if each of those hours will be billable because it won’t.
      I didn’t see the barrister on the news but it is difficult to know from one year to the next what you will earn or to discern patterns – because payment through legal aid is so erratic. We don’t get a salary and some weeks we get a boon payment, other weeks nothing. I for example was hoping for a chunk of money this week but in fact have been paid nothing at all. I might get something next week I might not. My income for December was about 30% of what an average month would be, for no particular reason.
      I’ve not complained in this post about me being hard up. I’m not a criminal barrister and do not get paid by criminal legal aid.
      If you properly scrutinise the government’s own figures you will see the picture is not as you present / understand it. That is sufficient evidence in itself.

    • Hi Brian,

      I can understand why you might be sceptical, but believe it or not, the Government does and provably has in many cases, some more controversial than others admittedly, get its facts wrong.

      The reality is, that the future of the criminal bar is very much now at risk. Whilst I take your points about the working man and what he can expect to earn, what has been said by junior barristers, which is by far the majority of them (you can’t call yourself senior unless you are a QC), is the sad truth.

      What is sadder is that back in 2007 I lobbied some junior barristers to start making the public aware of what it is they do exactly, and how much they get paid. Something like getting newsnight or the like, to do a ‘day in the life of’ piece. It seems that there is a public perception that anyone who dons a wig and gown, goes to work on horseback with a glass of claret in one hand, and fine cut lead crystal decanter in the other. This is certainly not so.

      The media seems to have exploited this misconception by the way it has covered the protest (we can’t call a bunch of self employed people strikers), and I think that is what Familoo’s piece is really about.

      For what it is worth I firmly believe that we now live in an envy society where we either believe or think that the other person is doing far too well for what they do, which is exception to the rule rather than the rule in my experience.

      In the noughties I had a couple of companies in the trades and my personal income dwarfed all but that of a silk at the criminal bar. I did not see barristers flocking to become plasterers plumbers and fitters, even though a great many were well aware of the potential financial benefits. No, like me they all seemed to take great pride in what they do and were not interested in the other guy.

      But imagine, now they are finally about to be wiped out, we say ” to hell with them they are fat cats!” particularly as they are not. Forgetting why they exist, who they exist for (all of us), that they probably invested at least £100k in their education at a tender age which they must now repay, but are now told the thing that the wanted to do the most; nay, planned for, invested in, are committed to and love, they cannot do as they shall be frozen out.

      Michael Heseltine recently said on TV about the ‘recovery’ (as if the UK economy is a fragile alcoholic) that the people of Britain should see how others in India live, and how they learn to get by before complaining. No thank you Michael, no such comparison is realistic or fair, and no compliment to us either, and illustrates the utter contempt that these so called statesman have for the ordinary person.

      No, my concern is about the society we grow old in, our children have to live in the future, and the fall out from this which shall be very, very bad. The current LSC budget is £2bn, and that is absolute chicken feed to protect the fabric of a society. That’s right I said it, it’s not all about the NHS and welfare, it’s about law and order without which none of the others follow.

      True enough, nobody likes lawyers, until you need one that is. For most people they require the services of a lawyer at some time or another. But then again, maybe that’s just the ‘other guy’, not numero uno?

  9. Surely it’s obvious that barristers earn less than the government says they do, but more than they themselves admit to. (The government’s innate dishonesty can be taken for granted, and well-paid people almost always seem to think they’re not)

    There are bound to be some clever/lucky ones at one end of the scale and some stupid/unlucky ones at the other end.

    No-one with any sense would believe that either end is particularly representative of the median – they’re just points from which interested parties can argue.

    Personally I don’t think it makes a very strong argument to talk about barristers living on circa-15K – it so patently cannot be generally true that it undermines what might otherwise be a reasonable case.

    • There are I’m sure barristers earning both figures and any figure in between. I’m sure there are many living on circa 15k after tax. They do it because they believe in the job’s importance, but there is a breaking point.

  10. These are the figures the Government is relying on:

    https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/legal-aid-statistics-barrister-fee-income-from-public-sources-201213

    These are the public funded income for all barristers in criminal cases. These are not only the barristers who derive all the income from legal aid, but barristers who derive any income from legal aid, so those with other income sources.

    Average (including the fat cats at the top) is £72, median is £56k. Remember this is just the legal aid derived income, other income is excluded from this survey. Clearly you can make an awful lot of money from criminal legal aid, look at the top earners!

    • Some people do make a lot from criminal legal aid, although far fewer than historically and less than before. The question is whether a few high earners can sustain a criminal justice system for all of us who one day might be defendants. How can they? We need a large pool of competent advocates, including a pool of those who can work their way up and gain experience.

    • The devil’s in the detail, however, or in the footnotes in this case.

      As has been pointed out elsewhere, the figures given there are fee income, which is inclusive of VAT, professional expenses, insurance, chambers rent, NI contributions etc. These generally amount to 30-50% as overheads.

      Those figures also represent payments made in a particular year, not for a particular year. Those earning at the top are likely to have been involved in cases taking 2 or more years, so the fees (even after overheads are deducted) can’t be compared to an annual salary. Even shorter cases may not be paid in the same tax year as they are billed as the Legal Aid Agency is not noted for its speed.

      The figures shown as fee income also include money that has been subsequently reclaimed by the LAA, such as after a costs order.

      In cases where one barrister receives and distributes fees to others, the total fee has been wrongly attributed to the one person.

      Yes, a few people doing the very most serious cases that require the most experience can do well (although not quite as well as those figures suggest). But there are thousands much closer to the median, accepting just for the sake of argument that it’s a valid figure, (let’s say generously that £56k fee income is £30-35k gross personal income), both above and below it. Those criminal barristers that I know personally are closer to £15-20k, with average 70-80 hour weeks that bring the hourly equivalent well below the minimum wage.

      And it hardly matters if a few at the top earn well if nobody at the bottom can afford to stay in the profession.

  11. It is disheartening to read the Brians commenting on your blog. You expect those types to troll on the Guardian because, well, they’re asking for it, aren’t they? Your measured responses, on the other hand, are a treat. All the best Lucy and good luck in life Brian, you’ll need it.

    • Nick – how many criminal barristers who derive their income solely from criminal legal aid are earning less than £25k? Please show me a source which supports your case?

      • I wasn’t aware I made any case. The following does not exactly answer your question, but give it a go
        https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/269061/laa-barrister-spend.pdf

        Be sure to read all the explanatory notes

        • That’s the same set of statistics I pointed to earlier. 25% of barristers make less than £20k SOLELY FROM LEGAL AID (i.e. not including other income they have!). Then again over 25% of barristers make over £100k SOLELY FROM LEGAL AID (not including other income). I have no idea how many barristers are existing on £25k gross income each year, and nor does anyone else here. You’re confusing the proportion of legal aid income with the total income for a barrister, this is misleading.
          Given you can clearly earn a very comfortable income from legal aid, whether or not that’s subsidised by additional income, I’m calling your bluff here.

          Substantiate the claims and tell me how many barristers have a TOTAL income of less than £25k p.a. and how many of those derive that total income from legal aid.

          • I don’t imagine any body holds that information.

            The only people who could have a decent go at producing it are (ironically) the MoJ, and even then I think you would have to work it out. Perhaps you ought to try a FoI request? But I suspect they would tell you it is too expensive to collate and refuse.

            In any event, I think your argument misses the point. It is correct to observe that, from the MoJ press release all you can see is the total amount of publicly funded earnings.

            Some people do a mix of publicly and privately funded work. But very few cross-subsidise criminal work with privately paid work. Those that do a mix tend to either a) do it for a few years for experience then ditch it or b)
            only do crime when nothing else is going. Most criminal practitioners are actively seeking privately paid work to boost income.

            And in due course the skilled criminal advocates will stop doing criminal work.

            Finally, the point you keep missing is that a £25k gross is worth about £16k of taxable income + expenses (i.e gross for an employed person, as VAT and chambers fees @ about 20% must be deducted). £25k of taxable income + expenses requires an income of about £37k gross.

    • I’m adding my response at this level because the columns are getting too narrow.
      I think you’re missing the point, clearly there are no criminal barristers who are surviving on less than 10K per year for any length of time, if there are they don’t have a future. I suspect some of those at the low end may even be working part time.
      The Criminal Bar Association should be representing their members by taking annual surveys of the income and type of work their members do. Engineering Institutions do this, and have done for years. It’s a way to attract members if they’re well paid, or campaign for better remuneration if they’re not. Either way it’s in their interest to collect this information so they would have something to counter the MoJ. Ironically the barristers need to get some evidence to support their case instead of just blowing hot air.

  12. Has anyone stopped to ask why, on the 2nd January 2014, a few days before this strike, the Ministry of Justice release a document called “ad hoc statistical release”? These figures have been presented in such a way as to appeal to the usual nonsense spouted by trolls such as our friend Brian. They are not a statement of what an average criminal Barrister earns. They are a statement of what legal aid fees have been paid in that year. Let’s take the median of £56k. Sounds like a tidy amount of money. Until you deduct expenses. Oh, and VAT which has (some may say deviously) not been deducted and is paid straight to HMRC.

    I personally would be reluctant to rely upon any such statistical release, given the convenient timing, the odd choice of incorporation of vat and the fact that it comes from a department of government headed by a man who has been previously criticised by the Chairman of the UK Statistics Authority for making statements “likely to damage public trust in official statistics”.

    The Criminal Bar Association have been suggesting an average earnings for a criminal barrister of £37k. I suspect that is a fair statement and accurate figure. Of course, the top end silks on £300k will skew this figure, but to me it is probably near the mark.

    Assuming this figure is reasonably accurate, I would like to be able to take a poll of non-legal folk to see what they think a. Criminal barristers ARE earning and b. What they think they SHOULD be earning.

    I suspect that once the trolls’ nonsense is removed, the answers will be higher than £37k.

  13. Watching Silent Witness last night, which had a short scene from a criminal trial, it occurred to me that you could not get a jobbing actor to pretend to be a barrister for the £87 appearance fee for actually being one.

    Was with a former criminal barrister today, who had been good at it, passionate about it, loved doing the job, but has given up criminal practice because it was no longer financially viable. Of course we don’t want people being overpaid for jobs, particularly jobs that are funded by the taxpayer, but if working in the criminal bar is not financially viable for those who had a full diary and were good at it (albeit a junior, not a silk) then that’s going to have consequences after a while.

  14. Northern Lights

    I find the support for these cuts from some quarters (even allowing for the ubiquitous FNF troll here) rather difficult to understand but we do seem to have a population of turkeys voting for Christmas.
    In response to Andrew’s question above, I suspect most reasonable people would expect those who prosecute the most difficult criminal cases and those who protect the innocent from loss of liberty, to earn on a level comparable with that of other professionals such as doctors (I’d like to see the same value placed on our teachers but that is another thread) Actually, the allegations levelled at barristers here are reminiscent of those levelled at doctors and dentists before the advent of the NHS (or what’s left of it)
    I also think it is misleading to conflate legal aid in criminal cases with the pre April provision in family cases (the source of the anger from some quarters, I suspect). That system frequently led to a situation where one party was publicly funded; the other (frequently no better off in real terms financially) having to fund their own representation. It was unfair, discriminatory and open to abuse but it needed reformed, not abolished ( a fully means tested system would have helped)
    Lastly, most of the barristers I know, if they survive the first few years, work long and unsociable hours for a comfortable income. In the first few years, some don’t even earn enough to pay tax and many quit- rather different from what is being portrayed in the media. As for trusting what the government says, words fail me.

  15. http://www.legalfutures.co.uk/blog/criminal-barristers-earnings-new-low-government-strategy

    I don’t know if it’s possible to post links here as I have attempted to do! If so, this is worth a read…….

  16. Apart from indulging themselves in their time-honoured ways, what are all those barristers doing in that fancy West End property anyway? It’s about time they started to open their eyes a bit.

  17. Provincial Solicitor

    Something that strikes me about the statistics used is that, in the case of lawyers, the government choose to use a median average, rather than the mean average (which is used in most other cases). I wonder if that is because a mean average might show the true (rather lower) average payments made? Surely not.

  18. I did post earlier that the mean is higher than the median, not lower.

    “Average (including the fat cats at the top) is £72, median is £56k. Remember this is just the legal aid derived income, other income is excluded from this survey.”

    Fact is the government has produced figures based on what it pays out. It is now the barrister’s job to show what they actually make. Anything else is speculation.

  19. Sorry for waiting to reply for so long I have been busy with family matters not that you understand with the UKs anti-family culture. Where I am from family comes first and the government foreign or otherwise doesn’t choose who your family is.

    The courts could hire out official court solicitors as public defenders at a salary of 45k or 3 times what you believe most barristers make now.

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